The unknown legacy – COVID-19’s impact on health and wellbeing in the workplace

June 7, 2021

COVID-19 case numbers may have dropped across the UK from their early year spikes, and some restrictions may have eased, but for a great number the situation remains no less difficult, with the pandemic continuing to have a marked effect on people. And, as venues re-open and companies seek to return staff to traditional places of work, John Devitt, chief executive at Recovery4Life, says it is time to re-think mental health and wellbeing.

As the government begins its roadmap for lifting COVID-19 restrictions and opening up society, COVID-19’s real legacy is yet to be seen.

As we return to work, there has never been a greater need for businesses to look at how they will address the health and wellbeing needs of their people.

The pandemic has had a profound effect on society, as much through the often-unseen impact it has had on people’s mental health and wellbeing as its palpable physical consequences.

With continuing uncertainty over vaccine efficacy, and emerging mutations such as the Indian double- mutation variant, this situation is likely to continue for at least another three to five years.

While many individuals have sought support during the last year, businesses will have to deal with these conditions going forward as firms seek to welcome back workers after months in makeshift home offices.

“As we pick up the pieces and start looking at new ways of working, health and wellbeing in the workplace has to be more than fruit-on-a-Friday, gym memberships and the odd yoga session,” says John Devitt, chief executive of the award-winning Recovery4Life, which helps businesses support their people with specialist health support that includes mental health, COVID-19 testing and substance misuse services.

John continues: “The impact of the pandemic on depression, anxiety and trauma means even more cases will emerge over the next 12 months and are only likely to go on increasing.

“Fear, grief, trauma and isolation will impact on every workplace, so every business needs to consider how they will pre-empt these situations.

“Figures before the pandemic showed that one in six people reported experiencing feelings of anxiety and depression every week in England1. COVID-19 has exacerbated this and will have a long-term impact on how people feel, so strong support mechanisms need to be in place to help them.

“In terms of the impact of isolation, a lot of people are coming out of shielding or working from home, and a number of them will be anxious about leaving that environment because they’ve become conditioned to it.

“Mental health and psychological security impacts on all parts of a business and at all levels – this needs to be a cornerstone of any health and wellbeing strategy.

“Businesses need to look at their plans for promoting good health and wellbeing and ensuring there are effective systems in place to support those who need help.”

John adds: “Employers need to ensure they have a clear understanding of how they are going to support staff going forward, what to do if someone is in distress, and how they will manage situations if we have further lockdowns.

“The most important thing is to know your people and adapt policies, programmes and practice to develop a supportive and empathetic culture.

“Last month’s Mental Health Awareness Week and similar initiatives help provide a focus for these issues but for this to make a real difference it needs to become part of the DNA of the company and not just an annual event.

“Recruit health and wellbeing champions within your business to lead on developing promoting ‘good’ health initiatives and try to integrate these into company volunteering programmes and CSR activities.

“Internal health and wellbeing champions are an effective means of demonstrating a company’s commitment to its people and there are free resources online from a wide range of campaigns to improve the health and wellbeing of your people – from menopause awareness to debt management – making it a cost- effective way of supporting employees whatever the budget.

“While this is a lot to take in when you’re running a business or department, if people are confused or feel they are lacking in support, that is where we come in.”

John continues: “We care passionately about people and their mental health and wellbeing is absolutely paramount to what we do and as we work with companies of all sizes – from sole traders/consultants to large companies – we firmly believe the first step

is to maximise the resources and systems you already have in place.

“Companies must also take a more integrated approach to occupational health, employee assistance programmes (EAP) and even drug and alcohol programmes, as well as programmes such as mental health first aid and volunteering schemes.

“These cannot just be tick-box exercises – they must be self-propagating and have a purpose.

“Once these are operating effectively, employers can identify any gaps and the best way for addressing them or enhancing areas of need.

“EAPs are of particular concern, as many are not effective and are entirely reactive.

“A lot of people will be returning to offices and factories following the pandemic and it is therefore vital EAPs are up-to-date and proactive, because not everyone will be ready to go back or pick up the phone to ask for help.

“Our EAP model is designed to include elements
of assertive outreach by working with HR teams and line managers to identify those who may be struggling and offering support appropriately and straight away, without the need for waiting lists.

“The key thing is the speed of response, and we always look to contact someone within 24 hours of them reaching out; we are a 24/7 business.

“We meet people where they feel most comfortable and where it is safe to do so – that can be in their office, at one of our clinics, at a café or, if it works best for them, in their home.”

Recovery4Life’s top tips for improving the mental health and wellbeing of your people:

• Make your health and wellbeing strategy a priority and ask yourself whether your current policies and working practices support good mental and physical health. Is your sickness policy supportive? Is flexible working available for those with carer responsibilities?
Have you completed or updated your HSE stress management audits as people return to work?
– Review and make sure these include COVID-19 related risks…

• Is your occupational health provision able to address complex mental health and physical long- COVID-19 symptoms?
– Good if it is but change provider if it isn’t…

• Do you have an EAP service in place and is it fit for purpose?

• Be aware that public sector health services are stretched, so, if you can afford private healthcare, look for a provider that will cover these conditions and change provider if they don’t.

• Train your frontline supervisors/managers – they are key to making a difference at shop floor level.

• Look after your managers and HR teams – they need support too and are often expected to have all the answers to increasingly complex questions.

• Mental health first aiders are often at the forefront of a company’s response to supporting mental health in the workplace. Make sure you offer ongoing training, supervision/reflective practice etc.

• Recruit health and wellbeing champions within your business to lead on developing promoting ‘good’ health initiatives and try to integrate these into your company culture.

• And finally – look after yourself! Make sure you take holidays and watch your wear and tear – if you can’t look after yourself, you won’t be able to look after the people around you.