We all know that good mental health is as important as good physical health, and an individual’s work environment can be an important factor in mental wellbeing. Employers have a duty of care towards their staff, which extends to their mental as well as their physical wellbeing, and in some circumstances mental health issues can count as a disability, requiring employers to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate affected staff members. It is therefore crucial for employers to be alive to the additional stresses and pressures that their staff may be under as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and to respond accordingly.
Not only are staff likely to be coping with a change in routine (eg to working from home or furlough leave), which coupled with much more limited social interaction, may leave them feeling isolated, but they may also be under increased financial pressures and/or dealing with possible health concerns, either for themselves or their loved ones.
It’s important to remember that employers who look out for their staff members’ mental health can reap rewards, with a more motivated and productive workforce and less working days lost to absence.
In light of the escalating pandemic, now more than ever, it’s vital for employers to take steps to support the mental health and wellbeing of their staff.
So what steps can I take in practice?
1. Start the conversation
Aim for an inclusive, collaborative environment where your staff feel listened to and able to ask for help where necessary.
This can be as simple as encouraging them to discuss any health issues with, say, their manager or the Head of HR. Opening lines of discreet communication is a crucial element in helping struggling employees. It might also be beneficial to provide training to managers or specifically appointed ‘mental health champions’ on how to look out for, and sensitively deal with, mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. In this way mental health can be managed properly and staff will be more aware of the correct process to follow.
Take particular care when you are taking steps that will impact upon the workplace, such as placing staff on furlough leave. Such matters are likely to cause heightened feelings of stress and anxiety and so should be handled sensitively and transparently. Make sure you remind your staff about what existing support systems you have in place and who their first port of call is if they are facing any issues.
Finally, if a member of staff comes to talk to you about their mental health, be supportive and reassuring. ACAS has published guidance for employers, which includes steps they should take when a staff member approaches them to discuss their mental health.
2. Be transparent
Your staff may have concerns about the impact that COVID-19 is having on your business and what that ultimately means for their own job security. Regularly communicating with them directly and transparently about the steps your business is taking in response to the pandemic may help to alleviate feelings of uncertainty and distress.
3. Check in with your staff
If your staff are working from home during the COVID-19 outbreak, make sure you encourage regular communication by video link (if possible). This could be daily team calls to get everyone together and share company updates, or regular (virtual) one-on-ones between staff and their line managers. Encouraging regular communication can help you to monitor staff wellbeing and look out for any potential red flags (such as changes in their usual behaviour). It will also help you to check that they have everything they need to accommodate working from home. See our Q&A on home working for more tips about best practice when your staff are working from home.
If you’re thinking about re-opening your workplace, checking in with your staff will help you to draw out any safety concerns they might have and address those accordingly.
Finally, agree how you’ll keep in touch with any of your staff that have been furloughed under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. This will help them to remain connected with your business and avoid feelings of isolation.
4. Promote wellbeing
Set the tone from the top by promoting a positive workplace culture with an emphasis on employee wellbeing. Make sure you (and any managers) encourage staff to take regular breaks through the day so that they have the opportunity to exercise and take other self-care steps. It’s easy for staff to blur the lines between work and home when they are working from home, so remind them that they are not expected to work beyond their contractual hours and try to stick to previous meeting times to help provide structure and routine.
Public Health England has published guidance on looking after mental health and wellbeing during the coronavirus outbreak. Consider signposting your staff to this guidance or providing them with a copy for self-care tips.
5. Take a flexible approach
If your business can accommodate it, taking a flexible approach to staff working arrangements can go a long way towards easing stress by helping staff members manage competing responsibilities. This is particularly important in light of school, nursery and college closures from 20 March 2020. Many of your staff will now be facing a lack of childcare, which they will be juggling alongside their work responsibilities
Consider whether you can temporarily agree to a flexible working arrangement with affected staff members, whether made formally or informally (remember that certain employees have the legal right to request flexible working). For example, you could agree to allow staff to flex their working hours over more days in the week, or more hours in the week (eg so they can work in the evenings after their children have gone to bed).
Remember that some of your staff may be entitled to parental leave or other leave to care for their dependents; check your HR policies and make sure you deal with these requests appropriately. For further guidance about these types of leave, see our Q&A on parental leave and time off for emergencies.
6. Close the loop
It can be helpful to engage staff with, for example, staff surveys and feedback opportunities to help understand whether there are cultural issues that could be contributing to poor mental health.
This is particularly important in light of the COVID-19 outbreak. Ask staff how you can help them during this difficult time; for example, what methods of communication do they prefer, how often would they like to be in touch, what remote social activities would they suggest? If appropriate, you may need to adapt your approach to different staff members to ensure that everyone is accommodated.