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The other side of Covid-19: an employer’s guide to dealing with employee mental health issues

April 22, 2020

Some of the main concerns for people and businesses in this current Covid-19 crisis have been the physical health and wellbeing of our communities, as well as the economic impact of the crisis. However, there is another element which employers will have to deal: the potential mental health impacts of the situation.

What should employers be aware of?

The current situation that we’re facing has the potential to bring with it many mental health issues for employees, and these need to be addressed by employers.

Employers are advised to ensure they sensitively handle the mental health impacts on their workers, and be particularly alert to:

  • Workers feeling stressed, anxious or depressed, through fear of themselves or their loved ones contracting the virus
  • Workers feeling unsettled or alone, due to self-isolation and lockdown rules
  • Workers grieving for their loved ones that have been lost to Covid-19
  • Workers who already have compulsive or obsessive tendencies, for whom Government guidance to wash their hands and surfaces may cause significant anxiety

We interviewed Anne-Marie Gawen, Mental Health & Wellbeing Trainer at Unlock Your Wellbeing, and she highlighted the importance of recommending employers to encourage their teams to :

  • Have a routine and try and keep to normal working hours where you can. Set the alarm clock for a reasonable time. Get dressed in the morning.
  • Commute to work – may have shrunk, which could be a real bonus to home working. BUT maybe your commute helped zone into work and at the end of the day, separate work from home. Try (yourself) and suggest engineering a commute – go for a half hour walk before you start and at the end of the day to marks out your day.
  • Have breaks – lunch away from workstations – maybe have a virtual lunch with colleagues?
  • Stretch regularly and move away from your work-space – set alarms to do this if you need to nudge yourself– good exercises are here. Combine moving with getting a drink of water – stay hydrated.
  • Manage exposure to news and using reliable sources. Catching the news in the morning and evening is sufficient. People need a “diet” of good information for their brains.  appropriately.”

Getting the work done

Morale and Productivity – this may take a hit, as may your own. There is a period of adjustment that will vary from person to person. What will help?

Accept that work may reduce – adjusting to the distractions at home may be difficult at first especially where children are getting schoolwork at home. What is the minimum expectation? Anything else is a bonus. People may have to work in fits and starts – or at different hours, sharing space, computers, etc.  This is a temporary state – things will not always be like this. Flexibility where possible.

Communication – which will now be virtual. Use as many ways of communication as possible. Online platforms such as Zoom, Skype, Teams, Webex – will you be providing paid versions of these?  Ask people what amount of communication they want – setting a minimum daily amount – to more where required. Where possible keep communication positive and focusing on what is possible.  But do also acknowledging fears, doubts. Above all make sure that people are aware that you are “catching up” not “catching out” – which could add to their anxiety. 

Communal communication – allow people to be creative in their communication: “Pizza Friday”, “After Hours cocktails”, “Netflix/Book/Ted talk sharing” – let this come from the ground upwards. Wellbeing Wednesdays – allowing people to benefit from Lunch’n’Learns, Ted Talks, Relaxation Techniques, open discussions on their current situations.

Communicating bad news – If you have to furlough staff or reduce hours or other major changes to people’s lives, make sure that you communicate this sensitively and in person. Don’t hide this news in an email, for example. Remember that compassion and kindness are your real allies in your communication.

Encourage people to focus on their wellbeing very deliberately – their physical wellbeing – diet, sleep, exercise, but also their emotional wellbeing – their thinking, relaxation, reframing negativity, boosting their happiness and resilience, mindfulness, managing stress well, being self-compassionate. Consider providing “Headspace” App for everyone – mindfulness/relaxation. To find out more, please visit Anne-Marie’s website.

What are an employer’s legal obligations?

It is important to recognise that it is highly likely that employees suffering from mental health issues will be considered ‘disabled’ under the Equality Act 2010. Where an employee is considered disabled, employers are required to consider making changes to the employee’s job (known as ‘reasonable adjustments’) to take account of the disability and to ensure that such employees are not at a disadvantage. 

The intention of the Equality Act 2010 is to ensure that employees are not discriminated against, and do not experience unfair treatment, because of their disability.

Employers should consider changing policies and procedures, or providing employees with extra support, in order to assist with mental health issues. We are in a time where policies and procedures are likely already changing at a particularly fast rate; however, some key areas where employers could make adjustments for employees with mental health issues are:

  • Allowing employees some extra time off, or to work flexible hours
  • Providing employees with access to support, including counselling or mentoring
  • Providing ‘at risk’ employees with regular digital meetings to ensure they feel supported and part of their normal team environment

Under the Equality Act 2010, employers are permitted to consider costs and how helpful and practical any suggested measures may be.

During a catch-up call with a partner, Karen Melonie Gould, CEO of Gateway2enterprise, mentioned they are very aware of the mental health impact within the team during this pandemic and have been offering time off to their team members where necessary. The whole team has been very supportive of each other and colleagues have been sharing their workloads. The team regularly use WhatsApp and Zoom for meetings and Karen engages with her team every week and speaks to any team member who needs her on a daily basis.

How do employers prevent mental health issues arising in the first place?

There are steps which employers can take now to try to reduce such issues arising in the first place (recognising that, due to the uniqueness of the situation, these issues are likely to still arise).

Employers are encouraged to consider how they communicate with employees, in particular holding regular meetings to allow staff to feel as if they are still part of a team. Providing workers with a structured day with a set routine, where possible, will also contribute to this.

Where employees need to be furloughed, employers should consider the most effective way to discuss this with their staff, in order to give them reassurance that the business is doing everything it can to survive during this time. We have generally seen that approaching these conversations in an honest and candid way has been the most effective approach.

Employers may also wish to consider some enhancements for employees when remote working, including:

  • Making it clear that IT support is still available
  • Using video calls, where possible, including for events like video training lunches or virtual coffee catch-ups
  • Providing online training for employees
  • Creating communication channels between employees for work-specific topics, as well as for social interaction
  • Promoting access to support for mental health issues
  • Focusing on staff development during this time

We are currently in a time of great uncertainty, both from a health and economic perspective. Unfortunately, this situation may continue for quite some time, and mental health issues are probably inevitable, to some extent. In the event that employers are concerned about complying with their legal obligations to support workers with mental health issues, they are advised to seek legal advice.

LawBite will continue to issue additional advice on the impact of Covid-19 on businesses.

 

All information is correct as of 22 April 2020.

Keep up to date with the latest UK government guidance for businesses and employees at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance-for-employees-employers-and-businesses

Nothing in this article constitutes legal advice on which you should rely.

The article is provided for general information purposes only. Professional legal advice should always be sought before taking any action relating to or relying on the content of this article. Our Platform Terms of Use apply to this article.

Barbara Jamieson LawBrief SolicitorThe author of this blog post is Barbara Jamieson. Barbara Jamieson is qualified in Scotland, New York and California, and has worked at top Scottish law firms Maclay Murray and Spens LLP and Brodies LLP. Barbara also spent three years working in-house at investment management firm Martin Currie, advising on financial services and commercial contracts.