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Supporting employees through the mental health impacts of COVID-19
Dr Nick Zygouris, Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Director of Mental Health, MAXIMUS UK.

As workplaces reopen, discussion has turned to the physical and operational changes required for the safe return to work. Equally important is the mental health impact of COVID-19. Many people will have had stresses on their health, finances, relationships and caring responsibilities, while some may have had to face bereavement as a result of the virus. After months of being told not to leave our homes, many employees will be naturally anxious about returning to the workplace and have concerns about the risks involved both at work and travelling to work. For those working on the frontline, including healthcare workers, these pressures will be particularly acute as they have been coping with intense pressure and potentially future symptoms of PTSD, which I covered in a recent article

Evidence from previous economic shocks suggest that an additional half a million people could develop poor mental health as they deal with the fallout from the pandemic. Businesses could face significant changes including absenteeism and presenteeism, productivity issues, burnout and an increase in human error as a result of mental health issues in the workplace. Even before the crisis, the HSE said that work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 44% of work-related ill health and 54% of working days lost in 2018/19. Although we don’t yet know the full extent of the mental health impacts, early research has highlighted loss of motivation, loss of meaning, and loss of self-worth for many people.

With clinical mental health support already limited, employers will have an increased role in addressing mental health conditions. Recent advice by the Home Office guiding employers to offer support to victims of domestic violence shows that there will be more requirements placed on businesses to support employees. So employers must examine whether existing strategies are fit for purpose along with ensuring managers have the skills to recognise warning signs and have effective support in place for those who need it.

So what can employers do?

Firstly, managers need to be equipped to have meaningful conversations with employees, which includes developing their skills and giving them the time and confidential space they need for sensitive conversations. Managers will need be alert to the signs of poor mental health or increased stress and anxiety. They should be supported to have conversations that mix wellbeing with work priorities. It can be as simple as listening to and validating employees’ feelings and leading by example, by sharing their own worries and concerns and how they manage those.

Secondly, employers should ensure that support and signposting is in place. Are the services and programmes you offer fit for purpose? An Employee Assistance Programme is important, but may not be enough. 

Finally, most employers will need to adapt their wellbeing strategies as needs change over the coming months. They should include more conversations around mental health, resilience and coping with change. Rapid staff wellbeing surveys can help you understand your workforce’s needs and ensure a flexible response.

Every business is unique. But anxiety is a natural reaction to the pandemic and this can have an impact on both mental and physical health. By supporting employees through this time, you can develop a loyal resilient and productive workforce while reducing the costs associated with absenteeism and lower productivity. 

MAXIMUS UK works with many of the country’s largest employers on workplace wellbeing strategies and employee health, and delivers the Access to Work Mental Health Support Service that offers mental health support to employees at no cost to them or their employer. For more information visit our mental health page.