One in 5 people has suffered from depression in the pandemic
According to the Office for National Statistics, twice as many adults are suffering from depression as this time last year.
One in 5 people say they are experiencing symptoms, as opposed to one in ten previously. It's hardly surprising that people have struggled with what has been a massive change to most of our lives and uncertainty about health, personal safety, availability of food, and job security as well as life limiting restrictions on our personal movement. For many people, especially those who live alone and have been unable to attend their usual workplace, isolation has significantly affected their mood. For some, their personal safety has been put at risk, either because of their risky working environment or because of an unstable home life.
Those most at risk include people under 40, women, people living with disability, and those without savings. Those who have been just keeping their heads clear during normal circumstance with a programme of self-care have found the additional pressures of the pandemic have tipped them over the edge into a more unstable condition. However, even people who have never previously struggled with their mental health are reporting occasional and longer term challenges as the pandemic continues. Thus far, the UK has been blessed with relatively good weather, and since April, falling death and infection rates, but as the winter months approach, and we become less able to take advantage of outdoor meetings and hobbies, it's possible that the mental health of the nation may reach crisis point.
As with all mental health issues, early intervention is key if a longer term and more difficult to manage condition is to be avoided. Therefore, anyone who feels they are on the edge of a diagnosable mental health problem is advised to seek help straight away if they are to avoid further health complications and potential time away from work. Employers are urged to support their staff through their mental health struggles, both by effective line management and by offering professional support to minimise the potential cost of mental health problems to their business. Absence through mental health not only costs the employer in terms of sick pay and line management, but also backfilling workload and supporting phased return to work. Long term absence because of depression requires particularly careful management. Supporting staff may incur and initial cost of a few hundred pounds but avoids the above expenditure or cost of replacing staff as well as promoting a good relationship between staff and management. Any staff member who has been supported through a difficult period is more likely to show company loyalty, be more productive, be less likely to leave the business, and importantly, will promote a positive impression of your business as an employer, attracting other good people to work for you. It is said that the younger generations increasingly value staff welfare and benefits over salary and promotion prospects in today's job market.
As we come out of lockdown, anxiety is increasing
As restrictions are lifted in most areas, many people are keen to return to some kind of normality, but for others, the return to work and going out brings a whole new set of challenges. Whlst some, particularly those with additional health challenges who were able to work from home, were safe and happy in their own small bubble, the thought of putting themselves and their families at risk by returning to work and school and being in the same place as other people is causing a great deal of stress. A study by HealthDay shows that rates of anxiety were nearly 400% up in May 2020 from January of the same year and anecdotal evidence and referrals to counseling services indicate that those figures are growing steadily. Educational and business leaders need to recognise and address concerns before enforcing a return to school and work and take into account the personal circumstances of each individual. We also need to question whether a need to return to the same as before is necessary or even desireable. Some staff will have found that the ability to work from home (on at least a part time basis) has increased productivity and staff wellbeing as travel costs and stress are reduced and interruptions may be fewer. A good business leader will review the effects and changes of the pandemic objectively and consider continuing with the positive measures they introduced, whilst eliminating those that have adversely affected their business. Many of us have embraced new technology which has allowed a different way of working, perhaps more efficiently and effectively?
The added change of adopting personal protective equipment such as masks and visors is likely to increase the anxiety around returning to work. Many will find these uncomfortable, especially if worn for prolongued periods of time, but some will experience panic attacks and feel completely unable to wear them. There is a lot of hype about people with certain conditions being physically unable to wear masks, but in truth, unless you are actually experiencing an asthma attach at that moment, or have a specific physical condition which limits your airflow at all times, most of the issues with wearing masks are psychological. Try to reassure staff of the necessity and benefits of wearing a mask, and listen calmly about their concerns. Show them the equipment you will be providing and discuss how it can be worn safely or adapted for their needs. Allow them to practise wearing it and increase their time wearing it gradually. Be sympathetic but firm if there is a clear need. Seek professional advice where necessary.
Managing a return to work in a pandemic
The CIPD reccommends the following key tests before returning staff to the workplace:
Is it essential?
Can any part of their role be done from home or by one person in the workplace at a time? Do tasks need to be reorganised to minimise the number of people who need to return to the workplace at once? Consider prioritising a return for those who really want to return. Some people will consider themselves to be very low risk (or have already has the virus) and may be struggling with their mental health or personal safety at home more than they would at work.
Is it safe?
All employers have a duty of care to staff, even if there are only a couple of employees. Carry out a risk assessment and ensure that all reasonable measures are put in place to ensure the safety of your workforce. Consider physical and mental health and balance the risks of work and home.
Is it mutually agreed?
It is vital that any changes are discussed openly and honestly and agreed. Conditions for any indiviudal should be considered not only in the workplace, but also their journey to work and during any breaks. There will need to be flexibility on both sides and a trial period with a clear set of points to review should be introduced, with regular consideration of a changing environement, both in the workplace, in the country of local area and in personal circumstances.
What additional support should be put in place?
Regular review with a line manager or trusted colleague is essential. People will need more support than before and you must not assume that just because someone has been strong in the past, that they will be fine now. No-one is able to predict who will and will not struggle with their new normal. Look out for signs of someone struggling and be prepared to initiate caring and supporting conversations at times when they are willing to open up, not just when it's convenient for your schedule. Enlist the services of professional counsellors where necessary, particularly where someone is experiencing irrational fear about their situation but remember that what you consider to be acceptable risk may not apply to someone else.
If you have mental health first aiders in your organisation, remember that they are first line support, not professional counsellors. They, line managers and HR teams may need additional support as they grapple with the stresses of their colleagues on tops of their own role responsibilities and managing furlough or even redundancy. Those providing support also need support. Find out about CCC's facilitated peer support services by contacting CCC's BDM.
We may all be in the same storm, but we are all in very different boats!