The impact of COVID-19 on mental health
Managing the health and wellbeing of employees is an important part of the HR role. The Covid-19 pandemic has caused major upheaval to people’s usual ways of working, as well as to their home lives and many are experiencing feelings of stress and anxiety. According to an ongoing study by the Mental Health Foundation, 42 per cent of UK adults are experiencing anxiety about the pandemic.
The rise of remote working
Remote working has proved a blessing for some employees who have welcomed the opportunity to work more flexible hours and enjoyed an improved work / life balance. For some employees, working from home has allowed them to spend more time with loved ones, adjusting their hours to work earlier or later in the day. But for many, the pressures of trying to home school children, or care for pre-schoolers or other dependent relatives, while putting in a full day’s work has been very stressful. Others may have felt lonely or isolated without their usual workplace interactions and have languished in the seclusion of having to work in their homes. The pandemic has brought numerous other worries and pressures too, including bereavement and illness, concerns about managing other long-term conditions while shielding, or missing out on important routine medical treatment that has had to be postponed. This has caused a massive increase in anxiety, along with fears around job security and the resultant problems of paying mortgages and bills.
As businesses respond to the UK’s roadmap for getting back to work, employers have to consider how to safeguard their people during this time when rules and recommendations are continually evolving. Some offices and workplaces are preparing to open again according to the expected updates in Government guidelines. Bringing people back will present logistical challenges for employers and also create stress for some employees who are nervous about the risks of closer interaction once more. Employers will need to continue to be agile and responsive to the changing situation and navigate legal and moral requirements to safeguard staff.
The issue of stress awareness and management in the workplace is a huge topic. In this mini-guide we consider some useful hints and tips for HR professionals to support the demands of their role over the coming months.
Risks to business of having stressed staff
When people are experiencing stress and anxiety, they usually lose the ability to concentrate. Fears and worries tend to take over at intervals, diverting their focus away from work and onto the things that are causing anxiety. People can also become indecisive and forgetful, or more easily experience feelings of being overwhelmed by the tasks in front of them. All of these behaviours will have a negative effect on their productivity and the quality of their work.
Other noticeable manifestations of stress can include a change in normal behaviour, or acting ‘out of character’. People may become quiet and withdrawn, or irritable and short-tempered. These behaviours will have a negative impact on co-workers, quite possibly adding to their stress levels as well - it’s no fun trying to work alongside a stressed-out colleague. Put simply, stressed and under-pressure employees can take the whole team down with them, hence the importance of providing appropriate support before stress takes over. Conversely, when people are feeling happy and relaxed they are much better equipped to concentrate, make good decisions and be creative. They work more effectively within a team, supporting and nurturing each other’s endeavours and overall will be more productive.
Alex Arundale, Advanced’s Chief People Officer says: “Mental health is not something that should only be discussed when there is an obvious problem. By creating an effective mental health strategy and implementing a culture that supports people, you can build an environment where people are more willing to discuss their problems and talk about times when they feel they are not coping. Ongoing conversations about stress and mental health help to ‘normalise’ these feelings and help everyone to understand that they are not alone – mental health issues usually affect around one in four people every year and that figure may turn out to be higher because of the pandemic.”
Role of management in helping improve stress in the workplace
Employers have a duty of care towards their employees, not only to provide a clean, safe workspace where health and safety requirements are met, but to support mental health and promote wellbeing within the workplace too.
Managers need to be alert and take notice of how individual employees are coping. More frequent one-on-ones, either using virtual meeting technology, in person, or even over the phone, may help managers get a sense of which employees are feeling stressed or anxious. Mental health can be a tricky subject to broach with employees, so it’s important that managers ask the right questions, but also really listen to the answers in a respectful, sensitive and supportive way.
The Mental Health Foundation’s study over the last year shows that people feel they are coping less well now than they did at the beginning of the pandemic – in April 2020, 73 per cent said they were coping well, which fell to 64 per cent in the following February. Few people imagined that the pandemic would affect the world for as long or as deeply as it has, and fear of the future is a factor in people’s continuing stress.
Managers need to be aware of times when misinformation and rumours might start to spread about the future of the business, or certain roles. When people are fearful they often expect the worst, so any suggestions that they may lose their job are more likely to take hold and circulate during challenging times, than when things are going well. Managers who share information regularly in an open and honest way, will be in a stronger position to hear and extinguish rumours that might otherwise have a negative impact on people’s mental wellbeing and confidence.
The effect of loneliness
One of the most difficult challenges of the pandemic for many people has been enduring extended periods of social isolation and the need to stay physically distanced from others. Data collected by the Mental Health Foundation over the last year has shown an increase in the number of UK adults feeling lonely – 26 per cent in February 2021, up from 10 per cent in the previous March. Being alone does not necessarily mean that someone is lonely and everybody’s experience of loneliness is personal. We all have a basic need for meaningful social contact with others, but the degree of need varies greatly. When the personal level of need is not met, we can feel lonely - an emotional condition which has been exacerbated by the prolonged, seemingly endless stretches during the lockdowns and other periods of mandated social distancing. Forming connections with other people helps us to cope with our problems and difficulties and the loss of emotional support that comes with losing those connections can be devastating for some.
Spotting stress in colleagues and employees
When people feel stressed they may try to hide it and carry on as normal. They may say they are fine, even when they aren’t. It’s one of the reasons that current mental health advice in the UK recommends always asking twice how a person is feeling. It’s important to be able to spot the signs that your employees or colleagues are struggling so that you can provide support before things get too bad. These may include:
- Not taking annual leave
- Working longer hours and over the weekends
- Not taking the usual breaks or working through lunch repeatedly
- Reduced work performance
- Seeming withdrawn, frustrated, agitated, irritable
- Acting out of character – impatient, quiet, even tearful
- Appearing tired and unable to concentrate
- Complaining of physical manifestations of stress such as headaches, chest tightness, dizziness, muscle tension, feeling sick, loss of appetite or increased appetite
- An increase in alcohol intake or smoking.
How to reduce stress at work
There are a number of ways that employers can help to reduce stress in the workplace, from strategies that support easier working processes, to specific provisions for physical and mental health and wellbeing.
- Introduce HR software, such as performance management tools that may help you pick up on changes in an employee’s mental health status, if it is affecting their work, allowing you to step in and offer timely support.
- Other ‘self-service’ HR software can help reduce the repetitive admin burden on the HR team, like form-filling and booking annual leave, freeing up time to focus on enhancing the employee experience and maximising wellbeing.
- Increasing the use of workflows can support easier processes and make covering for absent colleagues more straightforward.
- Encourage connection. Human beings are social creatures and one of the most difficult challenges of working remotely has been the feeling of isolation. Counteract this with strategies that encourage connection and engagement with colleagues.
- Virtual meeting technology is a great way to make sure everyone, including remote workers, can get together and ‘see’ each other every day. As well as enabling creative and collaborative work meetings this can also be used for team breaks where ‘non-work’ conversations should be encouraged.
- Embrace employee-friendly policies, such as flexible working hours, special leaves of absence for Covid-related issues and for bereavement.
- Support wellbeing with techniques such as meditation and yoga sessions, delivered on-line for remote workers and in the workplace, respecting the appropriate Covid-safe precautions as the situation evolves this year.
- Provide clear, honest and open communication about developments in the business so that people know that leaders are being transparent with information. Breaking difficult news is not easy, but it is far better that it comes from managers and is accompanied by the facts than stoking the rumour-mill with half-truths and misunderstandings.
Alex Arundale adds: “Whether people are working from home or in the workplace, it can be really beneficial to help them build healthy habits that support their daily work activities. Managers can set an example and make sure their teams take proper breaks and enjoy social interactions with colleagues that go beyond work conversations to include everyday chat. Having a change of scene during the day by going outside at lunchtime, taking a walk, listening to music or thinking about something completely unrelated to work for a while is a great way to re-charge and help avoid burn-out.”
The UK Government’s roadmap to lifting restrictions and getting the UK back to business provides some hope of an end in sight for people who are experiencing pandemic-related stress and anxiety. The roll-out of the vaccination programme is also building confidence and the longer days and warmer weather of springtime are lifting people’s spirits. At the same time, going back into the workplace and mixing with colleagues again, perhaps for the first time in over a year, is going to require a change in mindset for many who have become accustomed to keeping their distance.
In a time when it has sometimes felt like everything is constantly in upheaval, one fact appears to be certain – Covid-19 and its impact upon the mental health of the nation is going to be around for a considerable time. Businesses and HR teams will need to become ever more adept at dealing with the effects of stress and anxiety in the workplace to ensure they safeguard employees while protecting business productivity over the long term.
Find out more about Advanced’s Cloud-based HR software and how it can help you to manage the changing demands of your workforce.
Figures sourced from an ongoing study by the Mental Health Foundation, as of February 2021
42 per cent of UK adults feel anxiety about the pandemic, down from 62 per cent in March 2020
26 per cent say they are experiencing loneliness, up from 10 per cent in March 2020.
64 per cent said they were coping well with stress, down from 73 per cent in April 2020
18 per cent are experiencing feelings of hopelessness, the same as in March 2020.