Mental health in the lockdown and beyond

When this is all over, will it be said that ‘it took a pandemic to put mental health where it should be – at the front and centre of daily considerations about working lives?’ Adrian Wakeling, Senior Policy Advisor at Acas, discusses

Charities and stakeholders have been campaigning for a genuine parity between physical and mental health for decades. We may be social distancing to protect each other’s physical health, the NHS and social care, but what impact is the crisis having on our mental health and what can we do about it?

The new normal is mentally challenging
We don’t have to look very far for the causes of increased levels of poor mental health. Early findings form an IES survey of the wellbeing of employees working from home, paints a vivid picture of anxiety and stress: loss of sleep – 60 per cent are losing sleep due to worry; more drinking (alcohol consumption up 20 per cent) and less exercise (down 60 per cent); unhappiness with work-life balance (50 per cent) and a third frequently feeling isolated; worry about job security (21 per cent) and the health of loved ones (41 per cent); and an increase in musculoskeletal complaints, with survey respondents reporting new aches and pains in the neck (58 per cent), shoulder (56 per cent) and back (55 per cent).

Although we all face many new challenges, much has also stayed the same. Surveys of employees, such as those from the CIPD, regularly show that work-life balance is a perennial top concern. This may be heightened at the moment – with the line between work and home being not so much blurred as completely rubbed out for many of us – but it very much a dilemma of modern working life.

Technology: a friend and a foe
Many people have wondered what the current experience of this pandemic would have been like a few decades ago, without the internet and social media?

Of course, technology allows us to stay connected. But it also allows us to recreate what we had before and for many this is hours of Skype meetings instead of face-to-face meetings. And there is the addictive nature of technology which means that it takes a lot of self-discipline to turn off devices.

Technology can’t solve the connectivity problem on its own. I have heard of colleagues having virtual tea breaks to chat, quizzes after work and there has been a great deal of therapeutic sharing. But a recent survey by YouGov, commissioned by Acas, shows that people are still missing ‘social/informal interaction’ while working from home (71 per cent) and feeling ‘out of the loop’ (51 per cent).   

Technology cannot automatically create good management; and it is concerning that in the same survey, although: 43 per cent of employers have experienced issues affecting their employees related to stress, anxiety or mental health difficulties in the previous 12 months; and only 22 per cent of employees have spoken to their manager about stress, anxiety or mental health in the last 12 months.

Good line management always in fashion
Helping people to cope in the current crisis relies on many good old-fashioned soft management skills – such as getting to know your staff and finding how to best to communicate with them. For example, social catch-ups can be good for teams but some colleagues might dominate the conversation and over-share; so one-to-ones may work better for some. And video meetings may be good for picking up on visual signs of wellbeing, but the World Economic Forum have warned of what is being dubbed ‘video call fatigue’, caused by people feeling they have to constantly perform for the camera.  

There is a course a grey area in all this. Employment law is still employment law, and although some regulations have been put on hold (such a gender pay gap reporting, which has been postponed for a year), employers still very much have a duty of care over their staff. Indeed, this duty of care has arguably never been so important. But it can be tricky knowing how to interpret legal requirements in the current situation. The rise in musculoskeletal problems could perhaps have been foreseen, with ONS figures showing almost half of us now working from home. For many of those, this is a new and unexpected development, and we will all know someone who is perched on a stool or using their bed as a workspace. This raises the issue of how to carry out health and safety assessments.

Another pressing issue is around managing disciplinary and grievance issues. Unfortunately, conflict has not distanced itself from our working relationships. Everyone still wants to be treated fairly and equally at work and to be protected in doing so. Acas has just published new guidance on how to manage conflict remotely.

The same storm but different boats
Everyone has their own lockdown story about how they are coping and the challenges they face – whether that’s home-educating young children for the first time; shielding a vulnerable relative; or waiting anxiously on furlough to see if there will still be a job for you. Although there has undoubtedly been a feeling of camaraderie amongst employees and people in society more generally, there is growing evidence that some parts of society are being affected more than others.  

The EHRC are concerned about the impact the epidemic is having on disabled people; and the Mental Health Foundation have just issued a report linking financial inequality and mental wellbeing. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out that 'groups that are vulnerable to poor health are likely to be hit hardest … and evidence is emerging that the economic repercussions of the crisis are falling disproportionately on young workers, low-income families and women'.

The gist of what many charities are saying is that although we may be in the same storm, we are not in the same boat. This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week focused on the theme of kindness and perhaps the kindest thing we can do currently is to look after the most vulnerable in society. At work this means those who are most insecure, financially or psychologically, and those with pre-existing mental health problems that may have been exacerbated.

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