As the shock of the initial shutdown subsides, and new operational arrangements are put in place, employers are turning to some of the wider implications of the coronavirus pandemic, including the consideration of employee mental health. How can employers support their employees through this difficult time?
Who do you need to consider?
Individuals will be experiencing this period in different ways, depending on how their working life and personal life are impacted. Think about the different groups of people you have in your organisation. Employers may have some or all of the following, in overlapping groups:
- Employees working from home
- Employees on furlough. This may be groups within the workforce, or whole workforces in industries which have almost entirely closed (such as hospitality)
- Employees still working in key industries, including those in e.g. manufacturing, where their work may have refocused on the coronavirus response
- Employees who are advised to shield, or who have family in the shielding category, and employees who are sadly bereaved during this period.
Your message and support needs to be personalised and tailored to the impact on your people.
Lead from the top
The CBI hosted a webinar discussing the impacts of the pandemic on mental health, and their key messages were the importance of leading from the top, sharing of personal stories and collaboration with others in your industry.
It can be tempting to see mental health support as an issue for individual line managers or HR, but the CBI stressed the importance in these unprecedented times of setting the tone at the very top of the organisation. A positive and supportive message can then be filtered down into more practical application by the other teams.
Ways to communicate
For employees still working, communicating with them may be easy. Emails are still being sent and read and, for many, facilities like intranet pages remain accessible.
For employees on furlough, particularly those whose work was not previously office-based, this may be more difficult. It is hard to support your employees if your only manner of communication is post. Think about whether you need to put in place bespoke communication channels for this period. Options will need to be tailored, based on the size and nature of the business, but some options might include:
- Logins to allow access to an update webpage from your normal website
- Slack or other collaboration platforms
- WhatsApp or other chat groups
- Scheduled Skype, Zoom or other video calls
- Collection (subject to employee agreement) of personal email addresses.
Consider dividing communication channels between those covering work and those for general team building only. Employees who are very busy (either with increased workloads, personal responsibilities or a combination of the two) can feel pressure to ‘keep up’ with channels, and worry they are missing key communications can actually increase anxiety. Being clear which routes need to be monitored and which are for fun can remove this stress.
If your team is normally sociable, think about how this can be replicated remotely. Friday night team drinks over a video call may not be as good as the real thing, but it can give an emotional lift to those missing the social side of the workplace.
Who is vulnerable?
It can be tempting to think that you know who your vulnerable employees are. Some employees will have well known pre-existing mental health problems or other difficulties. However, this period is likely to trigger anxiety and stress in almost everyone, to greater or lesser degrees.
Ensure that individual managers are keeping a watch on everyone in their team for changes in behaviour or signs of difficulty coping (and then ensure that someone is doing the same for each of these managers). Even if someone is finding it hard at the moment, many will worry about being judged, or simply find it hard to talk about their own feelings. Sharing personal stories of your own difficulties can make it easier for those you manage to disclose that they too are struggling. Likewise, it can help to open conversations with questions which assume difficulty rather than forcing the employee to ‘confess’ to it. Answering “What have you found tough this week?” can be easier for many than “Has everything been ok?”
Where employees are willing to share this information, it is also important to consider the home circumstances of employees. The difference between isolating at home with loved ones, and being alone or with people with whom relationships are difficult, can be huge. For those completely alone, it is particularly important to check in with their mental (and physical) health.
Mental health sickness absence
Most employers will have dealt with supporting mental illness sickness absence at some point. Ensure that managers are aware of any company level guidance and understand policies on sickness absence.
If employees are too unwell to work, communicate your sick pay rules clearly. Expressly highlight any adaptions that have been made for the current circumstances – for example on the need for doctor’s certificates.
Be compassionate and respect employee privacy (unless employees actively indicate that colleagues being aware will help them to cope).
Address the practical
For some employees, a big source of anxiety will be the overwhelming practicalities of dealing with this period. Addressing those practicalities can reduce one source of anxiety and make the employee more able to cope with others.
An obvious area of difficulty is parents and carers trying to balance their work with these caring responsibilities. Discussions with employees about working patterns – for example breaking the working week into blocks of on/off time or moving work into early morning and evening where this is possible – can help significantly.
Other issues can be working conditions in workplaces that are still operational, and worries about being challenged on journeys to and from work. For employees worried about challenge, issuing a ‘to whom it may concern’ authorisation on headed paper may significantly address that anxiety.
Give employees the opportunity to raise these practical challenges themselves. It may be something no one in management has ever considered, but can easily support.
For many employees, the lockdown will be the first time they have worked from home for a prolonged period. This can bring its own mental health challenges, from collapse in daily routines to struggling to switch off at the end of the day. Our homeworking article in this newsletter has top tips for healthy home working.
Both the government and mental health charities are working to support mental health during this time. Unfortunately, the internet also contains a lot of speculation and rumour. Signposting employees to trusted sources of advice and factual information on Covid-19 can help employees navigate the information: