COVID-19 and mental health: a rising concern for employers

Written and published by the British Safety Council, India on 08 Oct 2020.

We are living in uncertain times. Even though things are slowly getting back to ‘normalcy’ one day at a time, there is no certainty when things will go back to exactly as they were before the pandemic. There are still questions raised regarding the opening of businesses, falling economies, and job security. This has to lead to severe mental stress and mental health issues, as we have no idea about what the coronavirus pandemic will bring next, including in our professional lives. Here’s a look at the challenges and concerns faced by individuals in terms of their professional lives due to the COVID situation.

The mental health impact of COVID-19 on the workforce

The impact of COVID-19 on mental health is different for each employee, depending on the circumstances. However, employees can be categorised into three major categories. Individuals, in a particular category, are likely to face similar mental health issues, as they are most likely facing similar circumstances. The three categories are as follows:

Frontline employees

The frontline employees are dealing with increased anxiety and stress as they have an increased risk of exposure to the virus. The chances of getting infected increase by folds, if employees are using public transportation methods for office commute. Similarly, there is a risk of contraction of the disease from fellow employees through various sources at the workplace. Similarly, employees might be facing an increased workload due to staff shortages. This can induce additional workplace stress and cause workplace safety issues.

Remote workers

Employees working remotely since the lockdown was enforced might develop a feeling of isolation, especially the younger employees who are living alone away from their families. Even though we have technology at our disposal for communication purposes, it can’t replace in-person social interaction. Thus, remote workers might develop anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues due to remote working.

Additionally, the new work environment has caused the disruption of work-life balance, where individuals have to honour their personal and professional commitments at the same time. The boundaries of working hours and family times are blurred significantly. This disruption can lead to mental health issues in individuals who can’t cope with handling both commitments at the same time.

Furloughed individuals

Furloughed employees are most likely to face mental stress due to job security concerns or other financial issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Most individuals have no clear idea as to when they’ll be working again. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, about 122 million people have lost their jobs. Thus, employees might feel that they might be the next to be laid off. Even if they start working again, pay cuts can cause financial strain on individuals who are the sole breadwinner for their families.

The steps to be taken by employers to address mental health concerns

As an employer, it is your duty to ensure that your employees are fit, physically and mentally. With the right strategy, you can ensure that your employees are in the right state of mind, thereby, increasing workplace safety standards. Some of the steps that employers can take for ensuring employee mental health wellbeing are listed below.

Offer flexibility

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the daily schedules of employees. Remote employees have to manage household and professional duties, with no clear boundaries set. Similarly, a large number of employees who are returning to the workplace might find difficulties in their daily office commute due to restrictions on public transportation. These factors can lead to mental stress. Thus, as an employer, you should take these factors into consideration and offer work hour flexibility to your employees. Allow employees to work as per their convenience, as long as they get the work done within deadlines. If possible, let employees create their own schedule if it doesn’t hamper productivity. For instance, allow employees reporting to the workplace, to return home early if they are completed with the day’s work or the remaining tasks can be completed at home. You will need to create and adopt a customised approach for each employee to ensure that employees aren’t mentally stressed and fatigued in these already difficult times.

Communicate

As an employer, it is essential to have clear and open communication with every employee. You need to periodically keep a check on employees and ask them if they are going through any mental health issues due to the pandemic. Here are some communication tips that might help in connecting with your employees.

For furloughed employees: Tell them exactly why they are furloughed. Reassure them that it is due to a decrease in operations that they have been kept on the bench, and it has nothing to do with their work performance.

For working staff: Clearly communicate your expectations from the workforce during this distressing period. However, ensure that you overstress employees by adding to their confusion with unclear and half-information. Make adjustments to your plans if certain employees might not be comfortable with their work commitments. Maintain a daily or weekly check on employees regarding their mental health, especially for remote workers. Ask for their feedback, and make adjustments accordingly.

Provide mental health training

Invest in a mental health training programme. Leaders, managers, and other designated staff must be provided with mental health awareness training. Undergoing training can help in the early detection of mental health issues among employees and also reduce lapses in workplace safety caused due to decreased focus and concentration. It also helps improve communication and eliminate the stigma regarding mental health by teaching how to talk to employees in the correct way regarding mental health issues.

The COVID-19 adversity has brought attention to mental health as an important parameter for workplace safety, which has been long due. It is prompting organisations to develop employee wellness and workplace safety programs with a focus on mental health. As we slowly transition back to things the way they were before the pandemic hit us, let us hope that we use this opportunity to create a permanent workplace safety culture that focuses on the employees’ physical, as well as, mental health.

British Safety Council’s COVID-19 assurance assessment service and mental health awareness training programmes are designed to focus and improve employee mental health to elevate the overall workplace safety standards. To know more, feel free to request a callback at a time of your convenience.