On March 16th, the UK government officially made it essential for those who have the ability to work from home to work there for the foreseeable future. Shortly after this, the UK went into lockdown on March 23rd, and life was never quite the same.
This lockdown included the closing of schools, which meant that many workers would have to contend with the balancing act of managing their workload whilst also looking after their children.
However, not everyone had the ability to work from home, and essential workers were still needed to keep the country going. In fact, many ‘key workers’ found themselves having to work in extremely challenging environments which has led to immense stress and emotional hardships. Both key workers and those working from home are facing immense challenges, and as an employer, it is your responsibility to ensure that they are being given the best support to handle this.
Ultimately, these are very challenging times, and our mental health and wellbeing are, of course, very important. In this blog, we will look at the increased threat that the pandemic poses to the mental health of staff, and which measures employers can take to provide the necessary support.
What Duties Do Employers Have Regarding Mental Health & Wellbeing
All employers have statutory duties for the Health and Safety of Staff. These duties include the physical and mental wellbeing of all employees.
All employers must identify risk and eliminate it if reasonably practicable. Employees also have a common law duty to take care of their employees’ safety. Failure to carry out this duty can result in liability for personal injury claims. The HSE provides further guidance, and you can contact us for more information.
How to Protect Workers Working from Home
There are a number of ways that workers can be supported and protected whilst working from home. Employers should recommend that workers have a specific room or desk that is used only for work. This will allow workers to detach themselves from their work life and their home life. Keeping this distance is essential for ensuring a healthy mindset. Distractions will be inevitable, but a separate working area helps to minimise their impact.
Once an employer has sorted A dedicated area to work they should complete a workspace assessment and return it to the company if it flags up any specific problems or risks employees should call staff back to discuss possible solutions.
Once an employer has set-up a dedicated working area, they should be asked to complete a workspace assessment and send it to the company. The company can then access the workspace, and flag up any specific problems that may put the employee at risk.
Most employees will be spending many hours staring at a screen. When working from a computer at home, employees should try to have their screen approximately an arm’s length away from them whilst working. They should also ideally have a desk or table around 70 centimetres high from the floor and use a chair that provides good back support. Additionally, they should ensure the top of the screen is at the top of their eye level. All employees should be encouraged to take hourly breaks away from the screen to reduce the impact of eye strain, and they should be encouraged to move around regularly.
How Employers Can Support Their Staff’s Mental Health After Lockdown
Communication becomes even more important when you’re working from home. Make sure you contact your team frequently during the working day.
We recommend that employees take a 10-minute break every hour they should move their body stretch, move, walk, run and get some blood pumping. Having a break will help them to remain focused throughout the day, and exercise is proven to be beneficial for mental health.
Employers and employees should structure their working day and set dedicated working hours which can make it easier to focus on the day’s work and avoid distractions. Having a routine in place is vital for the reduction of stress.
If the employer and employee know children or elderly relatives need looking after, then employers should build this into their day and communicate this with the team. This will help everyone to remain organised and on the same wavelength.
Employers should plan tasks they are going to do for the next day in advance and set a goal for each day. When staff have finished for the day, finish by physically packing everything away. This will allow them to mentally pack everything away too. It is important for there to be a clear moment when an employee is signed out for the day and can focus back on their home life.
Below are six major factors that can contribute to stress in the workplace:
- Work Demands: an employee may not be able to cope with current workload
- Role: the employee’s role may vary, and role may not be clear.
- Control: employees may not be able to control the environment or their workload.
- Support: employees may not be receiving the right support, and as a result can feel overwhelmed.
- Change: the employee may not engage with the current change in environment and workload.
- Relationship: employees may be missing the physical interactions they could have with colleagues. Conversely, they may be enjoying the new way of working, and a result may feel stressed about returning in the future.
Steps Employers & Managers May Take to Support Mental Health of Staff
Employers and managers should have sufficient training to spot the signs of deteriorating mental health. Additionally, they should be aware of how to minimise the stress levels of their workers. Employees have a greater sense of control if there is constant communication, and this will reassure them.
Below are some steps that managers can take to support the mental health of staff:
- Remember your employees do not work 24/7 – keep communication to work hours and set out in your daily or weekly plan.
- Communication is key – ensure regular zoom video chats or meetings to keep your employees engaged.
- Encourage more breaks – for example, short breaks 10-minute breaks every hour.
- Encourage your team to finish on time and switch off (pack away your home office).
- Be honest – talk to Staff about COVID-19 and the impact it is having on the company, additionally talk about the plans to minimise impact.
- Talk to staff of what support is available – for example, mental first aiders, HR support or any confidential counselling helplines.
More than two-thirds of adults in the UK (69%) report feeling somewhat or very worried about the effect COVID-19 is having on their life. The most common issues affecting wellbeing are worrying about the future (63%), feeling stressed or anxious (56%) and feeling bored (49%).
While some degree of worry is understandably widespread, more severe mental health issues are being experienced by some groups. IFS analysis of longitudinal data from the Understanding Society study found that when taking pre-pandemic trajectories into account, mental health has worsened substantially (by 8.1% on average) as a result of the pandemic. Groups have not been equally impacted; young adults and women – groups with worse mental health pre-pandemic – have been hit hardest.
Bringing Employees Back to the Workplace
Eventually, employees will begin their return back to the workplace. Communication is key when bringing back employees back, either from being furloughed or from a work at home environment. A detailed coronavirus risk assessment should be undertaken, and all hazards should be identified.
Those hazards need to be minimised, and clear recommendations should be clear to everyone. The risk assessment should be communicated to staff and managers, and the record should be kept of this. We recommend completing a return to work meeting with staff before they return to the working environment and getting them to complete a medical questionnaire.
First aiders should also be briefed on what to do in a medical emergency, and a contingency plan should be put in place in case an employee displays COVID-19 symptoms. In this event, the entire workforce must self-isolate or work from home again if required.
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