Getting the balance: COVID-19 and employee mental health

This article is the first in a series reflecting on employee mental health and wellbeing challenges employers are facing. It focuses on the crucial balancing act many employers are currently having to perform in respect of employee mental health.

39% of employees have experienced poor mental health where work was a contributing factor in the last year. Only 51% feel comfortable talking generally in the workplace about mental health issues. Typically, 300,000 people lose their jobs each year because of long term mental health problems.

It may come as a surprise that those high figures above are ‘pre-pandemic’. Despite mental health being focused upon more frequently in the media and rising up the agenda for many employers, the stigma around it still exists and that is especially so in the workplace. Just as it felt that mental health in the workplace was getting the recognition and attention it needed, the pandemic hit and moved everything backwards again.

What impact has the pandemic had?

Mental health charity MIND has revealed that more than half of UK adults and over two thirds of young people felt their mental health has deteriorated since the pandemic hit in March 2020. MIND also found that people with experience of mental health problems are more likely to see their mental health worsen as a result of the pandemic restrictions. Even more alarming is that many without previous mental health problems have experienced poor mental health during lockdown and have seen their mental health and wellbeing decline. Workplace issues and stability of employment are likely to be one of the main contributing factors alongside the lockdown period and other life changing events that may have happened since the pandemic such as the loss of loved ones, breakdowns of relationships and/or additions to the family.

Employers were faced with a tricky balancing act earlier this year. On one side of the scale, employers were having to make quick decisions in respect of their finances and business and on the other side, decisions about their employees’ safety and wellbeing. What is interesting is that the law never changed.

Health and safety provisions for employers and their workforces always existed pre-pandemic. What changed was everything around the law. Mental health needs and requirements shifted and were not necessarily a ‘one size fits all’ for every employee (we would argue this was never the case anyway). This made the job of a line manager or supervisor very difficult, especially where daily face-to-face contact with their employees ceased due to having to work from home, shielding and furlough, etc.

Over 9.6 million employees have been furloughed under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and some are still furloughed as we write this article. For some individuals, that is nearly six months out of work and sadly for others, jobs may have been lost along the way through redundancies. Furlough has impacted employees’ confidence and may in some cases have resulted in a loss of skills or experience due to being absent from their workplace for so long. Again, with furlough, employers faced and continue to face the balancing act of keeping their business going while keeping in touch and managing those employees temporarily out of the workplace.

Furlough has also impacted the employer/employee relationship, with some employers worrying that contacting employees on furlough may constitute ‘work’. However, a lack of communication can make the employer potentially seem ‘uncaring’. In addition, many furloughed employees feel a stigma attached to the fact they were furloughed while others kept working, which could cause a ‘you’ and ‘us’ culture when those employees return to the workplace and employers should be mindful of this.

Consistent communication to both furloughed and non-furloughed employees is key to ensuring both sets of employees can move on and focus on the future of the business. The third article in this series will cover how to support employees’ reintegration into the workplace, especially where employees have been on furlough for a particularly long period of time.

Re-opening workplaces

For many employees, the end of lockdown is not a choice. Employees are being called back to work where there are legitimate business reasons for them to be there. Employees are likely to have conflicting feelings about their return to work. Some will be grateful for the change of scene, while others will have a host of anxiety-based feelings and frustration, particularly where for instance they feel unsafe travelling on public transport or they have caring responsibilities at home. Some may feel they are being asked to come back too soon. Some may feel it’s too late.

Employers should consider approaching their employees’ returns to work the same way they would approach a normal return to work after a long-term absence. Most employers have a range of support and resources already on hand to help with employee wellbeing such as employee assistance programmes etc – find them and remind and encourage employees to use them. The final article in this series will cover the likelihood of an increase in flexible working requests as a result of the pandemic and how employers can support such requests without compromising business continuity. Again, it is all about finding the balance.

What should employers be doing now?

Now is a great time for employers to sit back and reflect on how they have handled their employees’ wellbeing and mental health over the last 6 months. What went well? What went wrong? What could be better moving forward? There are lots of individuals seeking new employment as a result of the pandemic and as much as employers will be assessing them, they will be assessing employers on their response to the pandemic and how much the employer values their employees’ wellbeing.

One key thing for employers to bear in mind is that the focus should be on prevention rather than cure. This is particularly so during these unprecedented times. Employers should not ignore employees reaching out for support and should signpost as appropriate. It is often sadly too late once an employee reaches ‘crisis’ point. It is so important that employers create a workplace where employees are confident to open up about mental health and that mental health and wellbeing are placed high on the agenda going forward – even more so than it might have been before. Moving forward, the most crucial task for employers will be keeping a state of equilibrium through support for both employees in the workplace and those working from home.

The next article in this series will focus on how employers can continue to support employees working from home, taking into account the mental health and wellbeing aspects that many of us have felt throughout lockdown and through the shift to what is almost a permanent working from home scenario.


This information is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. Please contact us for specific advice on your circumstances. © Shoosmiths LLP 2024.



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