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Business & Economy

Occupational health in the post-COVID-19 workplace: a regional snapshot

As society tries to work out how to live with the legacy of the pandemic and what the ‘new normal’ will look like, employers have been welcoming workers back to offices and factories. But the situation is far from simple, with many people, having spent two years at home, nervous about a return and, in some cases, feeling very different to their pre-pandemic selves. This factor, combined with an increasing cost of living, means employers must be more alert than ever before. Here, Tony Pendlebury, Recovery4Life’s clinical director and a leading psychotherapist, reveals what organisations can do to support workers’ mental health and wellbeing now and in the future.

Tell us a little about your background

I’ve worked in the areas of mental health and addiction for more than 20 years, and I’m a qualified psychotherapist. During my career, I’ve worked extensively within the NHS in London, Kent and the North East, occupying a diverse array of roles, ranging from specialist substance misuse through to public health commissioning.I’ve chaired the Darlington Safeguarding Board and been highly involved in County Durham and Darlington’s CDLIN – set up to further ensure patients’ safety in the wake of the Shipman Inquiry – and was chair of the substance misuse planning group in Darlington between 2008 and 2016.

Alongside Dr Martin Weatherhead in 2004, I helped set up the ground-breaking Washington project and Counted4, which was the forerunner to Recovery4Life. I returned three years ago as clinical director fulltime, and specialise in supporting employers to manage complex dual-diagnosis cases as they emerge in the workplace while managing a multi-disciplinary clinical team.

What attracted you to your current role?

I believed in what Recovery4Life was doing. More importantly, I believed in the way the business treats its people and its clients with respect and humanity. As a recovery-orientated organisation, we saw there was a significant gap in provision for employers being faced with complex issues that sat beyond the scope of traditional occupational health services.

With statutory services stretched to capacity following the pandemic, the need for fast, effective solutions, which can understand the needs of an employer and provide high-quality support to an employee, has never been greater. Our approach is unique, our model works, and we get amazing feedback.

It is also incredibly gratifying to see people return to the workplace in a much better position. The companies we work with see that too. They see their people are happier and more focused on what they are doing.

What are the current and emerging workplace health trends?

We’ve seen a significant increase in demand for health and wellbeing services – including our proactive employee assistance services, which cover complex and existing cases and direct treatment programmes – from complex mental health issues, PTSD, depression and anxiety, to drug and alcohol detoxes and relapse prevention.

We’ve also seen increased demand for more traditional occupational health services, such as health surveillance and management referrals, but with a much greater focus on mental health and emerging long- COVID-19 conditions.

We have adapted treatment models we’ve used for conditions such as post-viral fatigue to respond to the physical and mental challenges long-COVID-19 brings. The pandemic is still highly prevalent and is on the increase.

According to ONS figures, more than 1000 people a week are dying from the virus. Naturally, this means that employers can expect a continual increase in poor mental health among workforces, coupled with an increase in drug and alcohol consumption.

With that in mind, what do employers need to do to help people feel safe as they return to the office?

Employers are tasked with managing a workforce that has experienced long absences, lockdowns and continual uncertainty. And the Government’s change in messaging – shifting the responsibility of physical/environment controls, such as wearing facemasks, to the employer – means a nuanced and sympathetic approach is essential.

Some people may genuinely struggle to feel safe at work, with others arguing against the need to maintain the controls that have been in place for so long. Our advice is always to keep sensible controls in place and see them as a means of supporting psychological security in the workplace. Testing still has a key role to play; we started offering COVID-19 testing at the end of February 2020, before the first lockdown, to provide psychological security in the workplace.

We offer a full range of testing options at our Teesside International Airport hub and Gateshead office, to lateral flow testing solutions for the workplace (antigen and antibody), with full infection control training and online reporting systems.

We also offer a mobile service, providing collections from workplaces and homes.

Such moves will help ease some worries about a workplace return. However, recent data points to a rise in drug and alcohol dependency, as well as anxiety disorders, owing to the pandemic. Based upon those findings, what mist employers do to mitigate risks and ensure employee wellbeing?

Firstly, it is important to remember the region was facing difficulties like this before the pandemic – put simply, it was already in a crisis position. The North East topped the league for alcohol-related deaths and hospital admissions, and for drug-related deaths, and for prescribed pain management and antidepressant drug admissions too. Recent figures show these issues have been amplified with significant increases in both drug and alcohol related deaths.

Lockdowns created an increase in common mental health disorders, and sadly some people have attempted to manage their discomfort and unease through over-eating, excessive drinking or use of over the-counter medication.

People have felt isolated for a long time, and the psychological impact of COVID-19 has undoubtedly created problems for people returning to the workplace.

Many will have lost partners, relatives, friends or colleagues, and some will have had the virus themselves and may be experiencing long-term physical and psychological issues. So, there are several factors that organisations need to consider.

It is essential that drug and alcohol misuse, as well as common mental health disorders and associated support, are included in your occupational health programmes.

Medication checks and occupational health referrals, screening and monitoring should also be fundamental to firms’ approach, as should employee assistance programmes (EAPs).

EAPs can also be highly effective, but these services must be proactive and targeted, as people are less likely to ask for help when they are feeling at their most vulnerable.

Many EAP helplines won’t deal with pre-existing conditions or complex needs, so contact us if you need any advice on managing these issues.

Support to mental health first aiders and mental health champions is often overlooked, and they can become overloaded with the issues that are emerging. These can be great resources but quite often receive little support or supervision themselves.


If you are an individual or business that would like to find out more about Recovery4Life’s mental health and wellbeing support services, or wish to learn more about its occupational health, addiction and COVID-19 programmes, call 03333 448 288 or email Tony.pendlebury@