Employee wellbeing in a pandemic – get it right next time

As we teeter on the brink of another wave of the coronavirus pandemic and another round of homeworking, home schooling and local lockdowns, it’s time to look at what we can do better next time in regards to employee wellbeing.

Mark Witte, Principal at Aon, says: “The pandemic has been a tipping point and a call to action for employers to assess how their employee benefits have stood up to the recent tests. The time is right now to ask how they measured up and what could be done differently.”

Working from home can be positive

One benefit of hindsight is that homeworking is now the ‘next normal’. A lot of the stigma around it has been proven groundless. Benefits such as no commute and work-life balance have been recognised.

Research by the CIPD shows that two-thirds of employers believe that people who work from home are more, or as, productive as employers who need to go to the office to work.

Peter Cheese, CIPD CEO, said, “The step-change shift to homeworking to adapt to lockdowns has taught us all a lot about how we can be flexible in ways of working in the future. This should be a catalyst to change long-held paradigms and beliefs about work for the benefit of many.”

How does a pandemic affect employees’ mental wellbeing?

On 4 May 2020, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released a survey stating that between 20 March and 30 March 2020, almost half (49.6%) of people in Great Britain reported “high” anxiety compared with the 21% at the end of 2019. The same survey found that feelings of happiness and life satisfaction were substantially lower than before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

The NHS reported a 20% surge in the number of people seeking help for mental health crises from March to August 2020. It contributes this to factors such as economic uncertainty and isolation during lockdown. More aggressive nationwide lockdowns as the infection rate rises again over the autumn and winter could see a further increase of cases.

Employers should look out for possible signs of employee mental health issues, including:

  • Working long hours / not taking breaks
  • Increased sickness absence or lateness
  • Mood changes
  • Distraction, indecision or confusion
  • Withdrawal
  • Irritability, anger or aggression
  • Uncharacteristic performance issues
  • Over-reaction to problems or issues
  • Disruptive or anti-social behaviour

Some of the typical signs may be more difficult to identify in employees working from home or more flexibly. Sharing information about mental health can also enable employees to identify signs, especially early ones, in themselves and seek support.

Noticing one of more of these signs does not automatically mean that an individual is experiencing poor mental health but it should be a prompt for a manager to have a well-being conversation. This can be as simple as a phone call or online meeting to check in with the individual. A good starting point is for the manager to simply ask someone how they are. Here’s some examples:

Where appropriate share any observations in a non-judgemental manner and check if support is required. HR should look to provide simple guidance to managers on structuring these conversations. The sooner such a conversation takes place, the more quickly support can be provided. Where more specialist advice is required, consider a referral to Occupational Health.

Taking steps to prevent employee stress and burnout also helps. Potential stress triggers that exist in the workplace include:

Long working hours
Not taking breaks
Unrealistic expectations
High-pressure environments
Unmanageable workloads or lack of control over work
Poor communication
Negative relationships
High-risk roles

What are employers required to do?

Employers have a duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees, and this includes mental health.

However, in the current situation, the minimum standards set by law are unlikely to be sufficient to support employees through the many different potential mental health and well-being impacts of COVID-19. Not everyone will wish to disclose a mental health condition and not all conditions will fall under the definition of the Equality Act: it is however good practice to make adjustments and provide support for employees regardless of definition.

The law and mental health

Employees who have a mental health condition may be disabled as defined by the Equality Act 2010, and will therefore be protected from discrimination during employment.

Employers are required to make reasonable adjustments for employees with disabilities. What is ‘reasonable’ will depend on the circumstances, the nature of the disability and the resources of the employer. It could however include amendments to hours or location of work, provision of specialist equipment or the duties of the job itself.

Under health and safety legislation, employers have duties to assess the risk of stress-related poor mental health arising from work activities and take measures to control that risk.

Both managers and HR should seek additional advice where required, especially where mental health conditions are particularly complex.

In an emergency, if you are seriously concerned about an employee’s mental health and believe they maybe in immediate danger, call 999.

What else can employers do to improve employee wellbeing?

Supporting employees’ physical, social, emotional, financial and professional needs strengthen their resilience – the ability to navigate and manage change during turbulent times.

When considering practical action, employers can use this checklist to prioritise their actions:

  • Ensure fair treatment at work 
  • Assign manageable workloads
  • Communicate clearly and regularly
  • Offer manager support
  • Ensure timescales are reasonable.
  • Organise re-induction into the workplace to cover any health and safety changes
  • Brief managers on the potential mental health implications of COVID-19 and their specific roles and responsibilities in relation to supporting staff.
  • Promote activities that encourage physical, mental, financial and social wellbeing.
  • Work towards a culture where is acceptable to talk about and seek support for poor mental health.
  • Ensure that good quality communication and accurate information updates are provided
  • Rotate workers from higher-stress to lower-stress areas and functions
  • Partner inexperienced workers with their more experienced colleagues
  • Initiate, encourage and monitor work breaks
  • Implement flexible schedules for workers who are directly impacted or have a family member affected by a stressful event
  • Ensure that you build in time for colleagues to provide social support to each other
  • Ensure that staff are aware of where and how they can access mental health and psychological support services and facilitate access to such services
  • Be a good role model for self-care strategies.

Materials and resources

The CIPD has a range of guidance on supporting health and wellbeing in the workplace, available on the wellbeing topic page.

See the full WHO guidance here.

Mental health guidance for managers, jointly developed by Mind and the CIPD, explains, when having conversations about mental health, questions should be simple, open and non-judgemental to give the employee ample opportunity to explain the situation in their own words.

World Health Organisation (WHO) – Mental health and psychosocial considerations during the COVID-19 outbreak 

MIND – Taking care of your staff resources

NHS Education for Scotland: e-learning – psychological support and wellbeing 



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