As offices reopen, employers face a surge in mental health issues

First published by WIRED on 12 August 2020

The UK workforce is in the grip of a mental health epidemic. At the beginning of this year, global consultancy Deloitte estimated that a sixth of UK workers were experiencing a mental health issue at any one time, costing UK businesses between £42-45 billion a year through lost days and reduced productivity. Thanks to the coronavirus-imposed lockdown, that figure – already 16 per cent higher than the one identified in the landmark Stevenson-Farmer review into mental health in the workplace conducted in 2017 – is expected to continue to grow.

Money worries, concerns about loved ones and anxiety over contracting Covid-19 have all taken their toll on the nation’s mental health; and the gradual lifting of restrictions, far from making things better, has only made it worse. A survey carried out by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) as lockdown measures started to ease, found that one in four employees was experiencing anxiety about returning to work, while one in three was anxious about the daily commute. 

Emma Mamo, head of workplace well-being at mental health charity Mind, says the suddenness of that change has isolated staff from colleagues without any time to prepare, and stirred up a range of emotions that for many has proved difficult to come to terms with. 

“Many of us rely on social contact to improve our well-being, therefore some vital measures imposed to tackle the spread of coronavirus can be difficult to manage,” she says. Mind’s research shows that nearly a quarter of people with pre-existing mental health conditions were unable to access services due to the pandemic. Mamo says the impact on them has been disproportionate. 

According to mental health organisation Unmind, more people are turning to their places of work for help: by the beginning of May, 79 per cent of businesses had seen a rise in staff requests for mental health provisions since the outbreak began.

With no cure for coronavirus in sight, this situation is unlikely to improve. While global corporations such as IBM and Goldman Sachs – which proposed staggering working hours and scanning employees for temperature spikes – devised plans to keep workplaces running in spite of the crisis, others have used it as a prompt to reassess their real estate needs. International law firm Slater and Gordon has committed to having its staff work from home on a permanent basis: its London office is due to close at the end of September and a further six, including Manchester, are likely to follow. Barclays chief executive Jes Staley, meanwhile, has indicated that the banking group is likely to make flexible working the norm after discovering it could continue to function with the majority of its 70,000-strong employees working remotely.

Businesses need to focus on the wellbeing of their workforce to make sure the money they save on reduced rents is not lost through reduced productivity. David D’Souza, membership director at the CIPD, says that this poses “an organisational challenge, not just an HR one”; while HR policies around staff wellbeing may already be in place, it is up to managers to ensure their remote staff are benefiting from them. 

“This is based on people’s ability to voice in a safe way their concerns [in a safe way],” he says. “It’s a challenge, at a time when there’s a huge amount of economic instability, to speak up to say you’re struggling – organisations are making redundancies and people could be feeling very vulnerable.”

D’Souza believes employers in all sectors should follow the example set by retailers such as Marks & Spencer. At the start of the pandemic, when other businesses were making redundancies and furloughing staff, M&S gave its store and supply chain workers a 15 per cent bonus in recognition of the added pressure they were under. “The amount of time placed on communication so [staff] felt safe and cared for [is something] every organisation could learn from,” he says.

Having clear lines of communication is good, but one of the biggest dangers when staff are mostly working from home is that those who are struggling have the potential to slip through existing safety nets. This is an issue because working practices changed so suddenly and so dramatically when the lockdown began: figures from the Office for National Statistics show that around 20 million people started working from home since the lockdown, compared to 1.7 million last year. It may be easy to spot a colleague who is under pressure when teams are sitting together and socialising together on a daily basis, but it is less so when all contact is electronic.

Sam Fuller, managing director and founder of consultancy The Wellbeing Project, says while it is important for employers to make it clear their door is open for staff to contact them, employers must also take greater responsibility for picking up on early warning signs.

“It’s more difficult to spot signs and signals if staff are not in front of you, but you need to see when someone is not engaging, when they are quiet or turning their camera off,” she says. “It’s about noticing when they don’t come forward and volunteer for certain tasks or projects. Look for changes in behaviour and focus on the change – that’s one of the biggest signs.”

Employees with large gardens and no children will have adapted to working from home in a different way to those living in cramped conditions with large families around them, and employers should adapt responses accordingly, says Sarah Churchman, chief inclusion, community and wellbeing officer at PwC. Her global consultancy has tweaked its own bereavement policy to take account of the fact the grieving process has been made even harder by the pandemic, incorporating some of the guidelines from bereavement charity Cruse. She says now more than ever employers must take a “human” approach to staff wellbeing. 

“We always found it difficult to be prescriptive on bereavement and our view is that we’ve got to be discretionary because people deal with it very differently,” she says. “It’s not a policy around X number of days, but acknowledging that people will react very differently.”

PwC staff are among the lucky ones: their employer has been prioritising staff wellbeing for the past four years and, Churchman says, simply had to “dust down” its policies on mental health to make them Covid-ready. 

At a time when HR departments remain overwhelmed by the impact of coronavirus, supposedly softer issues like staff wellbeing can be easy to overlook. The same Deloitte report has a stat that should focus every business leader’s mind: every £1 spent on staff well-being results in a £5 return for employers.