Out-Law / Your Daily Need-To-Know

Coronavirus: the hidden impact on employee mental health

Out-Law Analysis | 28 Apr 2020 | 3:15 pm | 2 min. read

As workers adjust to new ways of working and grapple with stress and anxiety triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, Wellbeing Month 2020 offers employers an opportunity to focus on the importance of workplace mental health.

The coronavirus pandemic has touched every part of our society, shutting down entire parts of the country and challenging our very nature as humans to be social through social distancing, stay-at-home measures and restrictions on travel. In the employment context, stress and anxiety may well be exacerbated, employees will have been displaced and working from home, perhaps furloughed and, for many, concern about future employment.

Employers should recognise the risks that work-related stress can pose. Their general duties to take reasonable care for the health, safety and wellbeing of their workers and others are not relaxed due to current crisis. Putting in place support mechanisms and creating a culture where employees feel able to share challenges with mental health should enable employers to identify the risks and devise strategies to manage them.

The Covid-19 impact on mental health

The social distancing measures imposed by governments around the world mean that people are now more isolated than ever before. Our homes have turned into home offices, gyms, playgrounds and schools, and we are dealing with considerable uncertainty and change due to financial worries, health threats and potential job losses.

Against this backdrop, it is unsurprising that many of us are experiencing high levels of uncertainty, worry and stress, while those with pre-existing mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) may find that these are being exacerbated by the current conditions.

In the employment context, while most of us are used to sending emails to communicate across multiple time zones we have had to adapt suddenly to videoconferencing and similar technologies instead of face-to-face contact. While use of these tools has allowed employees to maintain output and engagement levels, remote working for some may have resulted in longer working hours and blurring the boundaries between professional and personal lives. The closure of schools means that working parents may be struggling to balance their work and family obligations, while junior employees may find the guidance and teamwork available in face-to-face conditions difficult to replicate in the virtual world.

Alvin Ho

Partner, Pinsent Masons

While stress and pressure are a part of the job that most employees willingly accept, the MBC recognises that certain types of stress can be avoided through small adjustments in our working behaviour. Some of these adjustments have particular resonance in the current circumstances.

Towards a mindful way of doing business

The Mindful Business Charter (MBC) was developed by leading banks and law firms in 2017 and 2018, and is aimed at improving the mental health and wellbeing of employees by eliminating unnecessary workplace stress through improved working practices. While initially developed for businesses in the professional services space, there is no reason why its spirit and principles cannot be embraced more widely by other professions and industries.

While stress and pressure are a part of the job that most employees willingly accept, the MBC recognises that certain types of stress can be avoided through small adjustments in our working behaviour. Some of these adjustments have particular resonance in the current circumstances.

Inspired by the MBC, some principles employers may wish to adopt during the coronavirus pandemic and beyond include:

  • stay connected – when we are in physical isolation, keep everyone connected and engaged. This can be done simply by setting up regular calls or videoconferences during which teams are encouraged to listen and understand how their colleagues are coping as well as to provide informal support;
  • stay bound – while 'smart' meetings are definitely on trend, it is important to retain a sense of team bonding via less formal non-work related virtual hangouts. Take advantage of the technological breakthroughs and consider holding coffee chatrooms and remote Friday drinks sessions;
  • stay flexible – we all have our different preferred methods of communication. Some may prefer emails to phone calls, while others may prefer instant messaging. Discuss with colleagues upfront their preferred method, and be conscious of the impact of your working patterns on others;
  • stay mindful when working with others. For instance, we should show our understanding and compassion for working parents who are struggling with different roles during this critical period. Be transparent where possible when negotiating deadlines;
  • stay yourself – the line between work and home may be blurred at the moment, but it is important to 'switch off', recharge and connect with yourself and your family and friends. Be respectful of the right of others to do the same.

The regulatory dimension

It has been almost four years since the UK's Health and Safety Executive (HSE) made the improvement of workplace ill health one of the cornerstones of its five-year 'Helping Great Britain Work Well' strategy, after identifying continuing high levels of it as an area of concern. This was later emphasised by its 'Go Home Healthy' campaign, in relevant sector and health priority plans and, most recently, its business plan for 2019-20 (32-page / 1.38MB PDF).

Of course, change takes time - but improvement has been slow. Figures released late last year by the HSE (9-page / 387KB PDF) show that work-related stress, depression or anxiety are the most commonly-reported causes of workplace ill health in the UK, with almost 13 million work days lost as a result. Excessive workload is cited as the cause of the stress, depression or anxiety in 44% of these cases.

Traditionally, many employers have focused on managing physical health and safety, but legal duties concerning health and safety are not limited in that way. The 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act clearly requires employers to ensure the "welfare" of their employees, and others, so far as reasonably practicable, when at work. This includes the risk of work-related stress, defined as "the adverse reaction a person has to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed upon them". Management standards and guidelines have been produced to assist with this process.

Health and safety regulators have made it abundantly clear that the health and welfare of workers must be appropriately managed during the current crisis, and there will certainly be a period of piqued interest and enforcement appetite by regulators with respect to health and welfare issues when the country returns to business as usual. In the UK, employers which breach their health and safety obligations can expect to be investigated and, in appropriate cases, prosecuted, with fines running into hundreds of thousands or even millions of pounds and immediate custodial sentences for individuals found to be at fault becoming increasingly commonplace.

The HSE frequently uses targeted inspections in order to drive up standards, and this is no less so in cases involving work-related stress. It issued new guidance in September stating that it will investigate if it receives "evidence that a number of staff are experiencing work-related stress or stress-related ill-health (i.e. that it is not an individual case)". This is a significant marker that the HSE takes its duties in relation to workplace mental health seriously, and expects employers to do the same.

Organisations found to be at fault can expect enforcement action and, given the priority status of workplace mental health both within the HSE and beyond, it may well only be a matter of time before we see a prosecution before the UK courts. It would seem that there is the public and political will for such action.