When we first heard news reports of a virus sweeping the globe back in early 2020, I don’t think any of us appreciated the devastating effect that it would have on this country.
Whilst we know that a number of businesses have suffered and the country has seen mass redundancies and unemployment arising from the pandemic, it’s important that employers are also mindful of the impact that the pandemic will have had on those staff who have remained employed throughout. April is stress awareness month so there’s no better time to reflect on how your staff have been affected and consider if there’s anything you can do as employers to support them.
Whilst every individual’s experience of lockdown and COVID-19 will have been slightly different, and some will have coped better than others, there’s no doubt that everyone has faced their challenges in one way or another and experienced difficulties and/or concerns, which might include:
i. Fear of themselves and their families contracting COVID-19 and/or concern for their/others health where the virus has been contracted;
ii. The difficulties and stress of doing simple things that we’ve previously taken for granted, such as being able to source food and other essentials;
iii. Difficulties in accessing treatment and services;
iv. Feeling isolated and disengaged from society, and not being able to see friends and family and work colleagues;
v. Working from home, perhaps for the first time, and/or having to work in a very different environment due to COVID-19 restrictions;
vi. Having to take on additional work because colleagues have been furloughed or made redundant;
viii. Reductions in individual and/or family income;
ix. Grief for the death of friends and family due to COVID-19 or for other reasons, and being unable to say goodbye properly (or at all) to those sadly lost;
x. Fear of redundancy/unemployment;
xi. Alcoholism and substance misuse;
xii. Uncertainty over the future.
COVID-19 has undoubtedly adversely impacted the state of the country’s mental health and stress levels. It’s perhaps not surprising that the Mental Health Foundation has reported that 74% of UK adults have felt stressed at some point over the last year.
Increasingly very worrying reports are emerging of a surge in patients presenting with psychological trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), not just COVID-19 survivors and those on the frontline, but also others whose mental health has been severely affected by COVID-19 and, for whatever reason, have not received adequate and timely treatment/support.
Why is this important for you as an employer?
All employers have a duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all of their employees, and can face both civil and criminal liabilities if this duty is not complied with. It’s important to be mindful that even where external factors may have initially caused or contributed to a person’s stress, the situation can be exacerbated by workplace factors.
Poor mental health is reported to cost the UK up to £99 billion annually and £42 billion of that is a direct cost to employers.
Where stress, psychological trauma and mental health issues are present, inevitably this results in staff absence, but that is not the only cost to employers. Staff suffering from stress, mental health issues and/or trauma/PTSD can struggle with concentration, have difficulty in retaining information, and may make mistakes; productivity may be reduced; they may struggle to maintain good working relationships with colleagues and may also have difficulties in their interactions with customers/clients, and may also behave erratically if a situation triggers the memory of a traumatic event. The side effects of alcohol and substance misuse can also seep their way into the workplace.
Whilst stress is not an illness in itself it can be a trigger for a number of physical and mental health conditions. PTSD for example can manifest itself some significant time after the traumatic event(s) that has triggered it, and early intervention and support for employees that may be struggling may just avoid it manifesting at all.
Where mental or physical health issues do arise, they can amount to a disability under the Equality Act 2010. This is where a person has a physical or mental impairment, which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day to day activities.
Employers need to bear in mind that disabled employees have protection under the Act from discrimination which can take a number of different forms. Not only can employers, that take appropriate steps to manage stress and staff wellbeing, potentially avoid an employee developing a protected condition, but where such impairments do arise, this can help them to meet their legal obligations.
In particular, employers must make reasonable adjustments where aspects of the working environment, terms and conditions of employment, or working practices place disabled employees at a substantial disadvantage.
What can you do?
- Raise awareness and understanding about mental health, and provide training to staff and managers.
- Ensure that risk assessments are carried out to identify the causes of mental ill-health in the workplace and what steps can be taken to mitigate those risks.
- Understand the stigma that can be associated with mental ill-health and encourage staff to be open about mental health issues.
- Signpost employees to appropriate sources of support, whether internally or externally or both.
If you would like any further information on your obligations as an employer in relation to staff wellbeing, and/or under the Equality Act 2010, or you would like details of the training that Gotelee can provide, please contact Marie Allen, Head of Employment, at [email protected].