01 December 2020

Harriet Calver, senior associate in the employment team at Winckworth Sherwood, explains that such support is now an essential business concern

Mental ill-health is now more prevalent than ever. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic it was the most common cause of long-term absence in UK workplaces and accounted for more than half the working days lost each year. Whilst we cannot quantify at this stage the true impact of the pandemic on the mental health of employees, early indications show that the pandemic, and the associated measures taken by the government to control it, have had a severe and negative impact on overall well-being.

Such a prevalence of mental ill-health is a major concern to employers, not only from an employee welfare perspective, but because mental health is integral to how employees feel about their jobs and how they perform. Poor mental health leads to increased absenteeism and staff turnover, reduced engagement and productivity – all of which is very difficult to manage at a time when many businesses are already dealing with the fallout from the pandemic and some are facing serious financial hardship.

Many employers are justifiably concerned about the negative impact that enforced working from home all or most of the time is having on employee well-being. Of course, for many employees working from home may be a positive thing and enhance their well-being and work-life balance, but for a large number of employees it has led to isolation, working longer or more irregular hours and an inability to switch off due to the lack of separation between work and home and the pervasive use of technology. It is also harder for employers to spot the signs of poor mental health when employees are working from home.

A recent survey by Vitality shows that young employees are particularly at risk from mental health issues, with 12.5% of those in the 21–25-years-of-age category indicating that they suffer from depression. Concerns and stress over job security and personal finances in the current climate are also taking a toll, especially for those at the start of their career, many of whom feel unable to take time off from work even when sick.

There is evidently a need, now more than ever, for employers to put in place support systems for their employees who are experiencing poor mental health and, perhaps just as important, to implement measures to help prevent a decline in their employees’ mental health, boost workforce morale and ensure that any issues are caught at an early stage.

Many employers have already increased their mental health support offering as a result of the pandemic. The range of mental health support on offer varies and examples we have seen include virtual well-being sessions, such as online yoga or mindfulness classes, encouraging employees to have thirty-minute virtual coffees with their colleagues, holding lunch clubs and virtual social events, such as quizzes, to increase employee engagement.

More direct methods we have witnessed include the introduction of mental health first-aiders or mental health champions who employees can approach confidentially to discuss any mental health problem or concern. Line managers have also been provided with training so that they can more easily spot the signs of mental ill-health and learn how to handle sensitive conversations around this issue. The aim of these initiatives is to promote a culture where it is acceptable to talk about and seek support for poor mental health.

In the long-term, as remote working appears to be here to stay, employers have begun putting systems in place, such as risk assessments and a mental well-being at work policy. By monitoring working hours more closely, employers can assist their employees to regain a healthy work-life balance and avoid ‘presenteeism’.

There is no doubt that mental ill-health is now an essential business concern and employers need to go much further than ever before to implement ways to counteract this and prioritise well-being. In our experience, an open dialogue and good communication between employees and their managers and colleagues is key to ensuring employees feel supported and that they can ask for help. Simply relying on written policies and/or paying lip service to the concept of positive mental health in the workplace will not be enough. Managers need to lead by example and champion mental health initiatives in order to break down stigma, gain traction across the organisation and to build a culture where employees feel comfortable to share their feelings and concerns.

Featured in the December 2020 - January 2021 issue of Professional in Payroll, Pensions and Reward. Correct at time of publication.