Employers’ concern for people’s mental health during COVID-19 soars

Almost nine in ten (88%) employers are concerned about the impact the COVID-19 pandemic could have on employees’ mental health, according to a survey of over 1,000 employers carried out in April by YouGov on behalf of the CIPD. A quarter (25%) of these organisations said they were ‘very concerned’. Mental Health Awareness week is the ideal opportunity to act on these findings.

When asked in more detail about mental health issues, ‘fear and anxiety about themselves or loved ones becoming ill’ was cited as by far the most common concern reported by employees in these organisations, with half (50%) of employers citing this one in their top three. The ‘negative impact of isolation and lonelinesss’ on people’s mental wellbeing emerged as the second key concern. Further, when asked about the main challenges posed to the organisation by increased homeworking, 37% cited the ‘reduced mental wellbeing of staff due to isolation.

The pressures on people

Even before this pandemic we knew that mental ill health was a very serious concern in organisations: our twentieth survey report, in partnership with Simplyhealth, found that three-fifths (60 per cent) of organisations reported an increase in common mental health conditions (such as anxiety and depression) among employees in 2019. The pandemic will exacerbate these conditions for many and is another reason for employers to seriously step up their efforts. 

Many employees are under intense pressure during this pandemic, depending on their individual circumstances and how they feel about the situation. The lockdown has caused isolation and loneliness for many. Others will be worried about themselves or loved ones becoming ill, particularly if someone is in one of the higher-risk groups. There is additional pressure on many if they have caring responsibilities for an older or more vulnerable relative. Similarly, if someone has young children who can’t go to school there is additional pressure to keep them entertained whilst juggling a job at the same time. Financial worry about loss of income can contribute another cause of stress for many.

The importance of kindness

The World Health Organization (WHO) says: ‘this time of crisis is generating stress throughout the population’ and people who are affected by the virus ‘deserve our support, compassion and kindness.’ This is an apt quote, as the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is ‘kindness’, inspired by the kindness that is prevailing all over the world in these uncertain times. As the Mental Health Foundation (which hosts the awareness week) says: ‘We have learnt that amid the fear, there is also community, support and hope.’

Small acts of kindness and showing compassion towards each other during this very difficult period can make a real difference to our mental health. Helping others has been shown to help the giver’s, as well as the receiver’s, mental wellbeing.

Health and well-being support is a top priority

We asked respondents to our April survey whether their organisations’ HR priorities had changed since the COVID-19 pandemic. When asked about their top three HR priorities, it’s reassuring that employee ‘health and wellbeing’ has become the top priority for many more employers since the onset of the pandemic. Now, two-thirds (65%) say this is a high priority compared with just over one-third (37%) before the health crisis.

Of course employers have to balance the need to run a business with workforce needs, but it’s reassuring that more organisations disagree (44%) than agree (31%) that ‘operational imperatives are taking precedence over concern and empathy for our staff’. Providing a safe working environment is a legal duty, but it’s also important that employees feel safe and secure at work. Those organisations that foster a supportive culture will reap the benefits in terms of engaged and committed employees, and so it’s not an ‘either/or’ choice to show concern and empathy or prioritise operational demands. On the contrary, they can be mutually reinforcing.

Managers need ongoing advice and guidance

Increasing responsibility is now placed on line managers to support people’s mental wellbeing but we are not seeing a big enough increase in the level of training and support they receive to rise to this challenge. Our April survey of employers found that less than half (41%) had increased their support for line managers to help them manage people during this health crisis. This is a positive start, but every line manager is likely to have an acute need for ongoing advice and guidance given some of the complex and challenging individual situations they will need to manage over the coming months.

Managers should not be expected to be health experts but they do need to recognise the value of health and wellbeing at work, be able to spot early warning signs of ill health, have the competence and confidence to have sensitive conversations, and direct employees to appropriate sources of help.

Take effective steps to support mental well-being

The CIPD is warning that employers need to act now to help prevent people from being at serious risk of mental ill health during and after the Covid-19 pandemic.   We are urging all employers to take the following steps during the crisis:  

  • support and guide line managers so that they feel equipped to have sensitive and supportive discussions with staff  
  • remind managers about the importance of communicating regularly with their team and asking how they are.  
  • encourage staff to practise self-care such as a healthy routine for diet, sleep and relaxation 
  • promote existing health and wellbeing benefits and support, for example signposting people to their counselling helpline. 

Further resources

CIPD and Mind People Managers’ Guide to Mental Health

CIPD: Getting the most out of remote working top tips

CIPD: Coronavirus (COIV-19): Mental Health and Returning to the Workplace Guide

Acas: Supporting mental health in the workplace

World Health Organization: Mental Health and Psychological Considerations during the COVID-19 Outbreak


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