A recent study in the Guardian found that out of 800 people currently living with mental illness, 80% felt their condition had worsened due to the impact of COVID-19 and 28% said it was much worse.
Lighthouse, the construction industry’s charity, reported a 55% increase in calls from workers seeking help over the recent three weeks, whilst Samaritans have seen a significant surge in the number of people struggling with suicidal thoughts.
Whilst the lockdown is necessary to prevent the spread of the virus, there can be no doubt that it is depriving many people of the things that usually help their mental health, things like work routine and social engagements.
The lack of motivation and purpose that furlough brings to some workers can lead to anxiety and depression and for some suicidal thoughts.
The mental health of home workers isn’t faring too well either. A recent poll on behalf of Moneypenny, found that 72% of respondents had gone more than a day without contact with a work colleague when working from home, 37% stated that they were beginning to feel the pressure brought about by the changes to their working environment and 6% were finding this new way of life a struggle.
We are all aware that pressure can lead to stress, which in turn can be a precursor to anxiety and depression.
So how can we help our employees to handle the mental health impacts of these changes?
The use of communication platforms like Zoom and Teams has improved communication, but these come with limitations. With Teams, any more than 5 attendees and a worker can hide by not speaking, so ensure you keep group chats to yourself and four others. Zoom allows larger numbers to be engaged but then it is harder to view body language. However, you can put two people together in a room as part of a group breakout session to allow anyone who needs help to open up.
To get the best of face-to-face discussions, especially where the worker isn’t yet ready to seek help, it is important to ensure the enquirer is trained.
Companies must have a structured approach to mental health, with employees provided with the information it is hoped they will never need. Sending everyone posters signposting them to the support that is available, whether that be mental health first aiders, employee assistance programmes or charities such as Lighthouse or Samaritans, are a great idea.
Having managers trained to recognise the symptoms of poor mental health and provide support is also important. Active listening includes interpreting body language to get a better understanding of the speaker’s message and then confirming that you have understood what has been said.
Another excellent resource to challenge stress and anxiety is an Employee Assistance Programme. THSP work with Health Assured to provide a very comprehensive programme for both employees and managers.
Positive mental health campaigns can also be beneficial in spreading good practices among your workers.
Companies will need to reflect on their own circumstances and adopt a range of steps to address the problem; the only wrong thing to do is nothing.
Chris Ivey CMIOSH