Everyone’s working lives changed significantly when the UK went into lockdown on 23rd March 2020. The impact of Covid-19 and the Government’s response cannot be underestimated and will inevitably bring mental health challenges for the population at large.  

Employers were desperately trying to understand the impact of lockdown on their organisation, what it means for the long term and how to meet their obligations towards their employees and those that they serve.

Early indications suggest the pandemic will have a significant impact on the mental health of the population for many months, even years to come. As employers grapple with the need to re-engage with their workforce and to try and return to some form of business as usual, how can they support their employees’ mental health at a time when simply being in the same office as someone can be a source of fear and disquiet, and social contact of any form comes with a requirement to socially distance?

What is mental health?

Like physical health, everyone’s mental health fluctuates along a spectrum. An employee’s work and how they engage with it can have a huge impact on an individual’s mental health, by promoting a positive sense of well-being or triggering problems when people feel badly treated or under pressure to perform. It is generally believed that some exposure to stress in the workplace can be motivational, leading employees to perform well which can have a positive impact. However, significant and sustained exposure to pressure can cause work related stress which is detrimental to an individual’s mental health and cause them to have a reaction to excessive pressure or other types of demand in the workplace.

Each employee will react to the ramifications of Covid-19 differently and their resilience to the lockdown restrictions will fluctuate in response to other things going on around them. Research has found that some employees during the Covid-19 lockdown have reported feeling a lack of motivation, loss of purpose, anxiety and isolation.

Many employees are likely to have mixed feelings about coming back to work – some will be excited and looking forward to getting back into a routine; others will be scared or angry, feeling that they are being forced back too fast. Some will have genuine concerns about using public transport, others will want to know how social distancing is going to work on the job and there will inevitably be some who simply feel overwhelmed and frustrated with employers, the Government and life in general. These are all legitimate responses to the new norm we find ourselves in and employers and employees need to be aware that getting everyone back into the office is not necessarily going to be a complete solution to the situation we find ourselves in.

Why is it important for employers to look after employee wellbeing and mental health?

Employees are essential for the running of the business. They interact with their employer’s customers and clients and if they are struggling with their mental health, this will lead to staff absences and poor engagement with the job they are employed to do. Employers, therefore, need to think about ways to promoting good mental health and support staff to ensure people are resilient, work well and are able to adapt to the next steps of the business, during these times.

What should employers do?

Employers have a duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees. This includes their mental health and well-being.

Anyone with a mental health condition could be classed as ‘disabled’ for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010 and will be protected from being discriminated against or being treated less favourably because of their disability. Equally, employers are required to make reasonable adjustments for employees with disabilities. What is reasonable depends on individual circumstances.

As part of the return to work process, employers should be risk assessing workplaces and liaising with employees to identify and minimize workplace risks. By doing this cooperatively, employees will hopefully be reassured that their concerns have been listened to and dealt with by their employer. Furthermore, employers should adopt a range of measures to support employees experiencing poor mental health as a result of Covid-19. These could include:

  • Addressing fears about coming back to the office.
  • Supporting with work-life balance.
  • Provide mental health awareness-raising activities – work towards a culture where is acceptable to talk about and seek support for poor mental health.
  • Improving communication between line managers and employees, for example through open door policies and investing time in listening to employees’ concerns.
  • Offering phased returns to work for those who have been out of the workplace during the lockdown.

Importantly employers should make an effort to keep in regular contact with their employees. If employees are working from home, this will often be the only social interaction they have had with work. If employees are nervous about returning to the office, employers can put their minds at rest by communicating and reassuring employees about the health and safety procedures that have been put in place and how they are working. Whether they are working from home or are planning to return to the office, employers should try to be honest and acknowledge the uncertainty and stress the situation causes.

Employers may wish to create an open door policy to enable employees to discuss their mental health problems with a trusted colleague. However, keep in mind, not all employees will feel comfortable discussing this with their employers, so do not push them to do so. It could also be beneficial for employers to provide access to mental health support and services through the work place, these should be advertised well so the workforce is aware of what is available to them.

How Blaser Mills Law can help?

Employees and employers have had to respond to this unprecedented situation with speed and flexibility, which has undoubtedly been challenging for all involved. With so many rules and requirements regularly changing it can be difficult for employers to navigate and keep on top of what is expected of them. Our expert lawyers are able to advise and guide you through all of the requirements, providing you with practical solutions to ensure you remain compliant.

For more information on the contents of this article, please contact Debbie Sadler on 01494 478671 or at djs@blasermills.co.uk.