Mental Health Awareness Week: A Message for Employers

22nd May 2020 Employment

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week and the focus this year is on kindness.

Now perhaps more than ever before, mental health has been negatively impacted. The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted almost every workplace and thrown employees and employers alike into a world of uncertainty and for some, into a world of loneliness. The UK was put into official lockdown on 23 March 2020, however, the instruction to work from home if possible came on 16 March 2020. Many individuals have therefore now been working from home for over two months.

Coronavirus and lockdown has negatively impacted mental health in numerous ways. For example, illness, bereavement, financial worries and caring responsibilities have all created heightened stress and anxiety. Restrictions have been lifted somewhat and we may return to a physical place of work shortly, however, this does not mean that everything will simply return to normal.

Mental Health Awareness Week is an opportunity to reflect on wellbeing in the workplace; to address challenges and to promote better mental health at work.

What are the key mental health considerations for employers during home-working?

Many employees are still working from home. One of the principal health and safety issues for homeworkers is stress, as homeworking can cause issues with the enforcement of boundaries between work and home life, increasing stress levels. It can also lead to feelings of isolation, loneliness and alienation. Employers should ensure appropriate support networks are in place for employees working from home. It may therefore be useful to set up or to continue regular meetings via Skype/Zoom to check in and ensure everyone is coping. This is also an opportunity for employees to share concerns and discuss any difficulties they have experienced.

Another good idea is to set up a group WhatsApp to allow everyone to keep in touch on a social level and maintain a team spirit. Employees should also have agreed work hours which will help the employees set healthy boundaries and ensure that they achieve a healthy work-life balance. It is important to remind employees they are not expected to be at work 24/7 and to encourage them to take some time for exercise, rest and relaxation.

What are the key mental health considerations for employers once staff return to work?

Many employees will struggle with the prospect of returning to work, particularly a physical place of work away from their home. Some will worry about picking up the virus on their way to work and becoming ill; some may worry about childcare if they do not want their child to return to school or their school has not re-opened and some may worry about passing on the virus to vulnerable individuals/family members that they care for.

It should be acknowledged that staff may take time to re-adjust to working in a shared environment with colleagues. Employers should encourage and support every manager to have one to one return meetings with every employee, where a key focus is on health, safety and well-being. Managers need to have a sensitive and open discussion with every individual and discuss any adjustments and/or ongoing support they may need to facilitate an effective return to the workplace. The requirement for social distancing will remain for some time to come and employers must comply with all necessary safeguards to minimise the risk of infection. This will not only protect employees physically from infection but it will also reassure them that their employers take their wellbeing seriously and calm worries of contracting the virus. Employers should inform staff of the practical measures being taken on a regular basis to reassure them that their health, well-being and safety is a top priority.

For those employees who remain fearful of returning to the workplace, it may be that employers consider allowing increased home working arrangements. Of course, careful consideration should be given to the practical implications of this on the business and it should be made clear that any accommodations may not be sustainable and will be kept under review.

Advice for employers

There is a general duty on employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees. Acas Guidance sets out numerous means of communication available to employers to promote positive mental health in the workplace:

  • Team meetings. These are a good way to regularly discuss how the team are feeling about workload and upcoming challenges and to encourage team members to consider their own mental health. Talking about mental health in team meetings normalises the topic. Open dialogue in the workplace around stress, anxiety and depression should be encouraged and coping strategies should be taught.
  • One-to-one meetings. These provide regular opportunities to discuss mental health, check on how a team member is doing and identify any issues early. This provides an opportunity for a team member to raise personal information that they do not want to share in a team meeting.
  • Noticeboards. Whether physical or online, a noticeboard is a fixed place for an employer to share general information and key messages about mental health.
  • Newsletters and email. These are useful for general communications and for keeping staff up to date with any actions the employer is taking to improve mental health in the workplace.

Mental health awareness week can be used as a focal point to ask staff to think about their mental health and to consider initiatives such as talks by professionals who have experienced mental ill health, sharing their insights. Equally, it can be an opportunity for the employer to remind staff of its commitment to positive mental health. Moving forward, it may be that companies decide to implement compulsory mental health first aid courses for all managers and supervisors. A mental health first aider is intended to be a member of an employer’s workforce who has been trained to recognise the signs and symptoms of common mental health illnesses and who can effectively guide a colleague towards the right support. First aid courses would teach individuals how to spot changes in behaviour; to follow up sensitively and to give the correct reassurance to those struggling.

Employers will need to be agile and adapt in the coming months. Kindness in the form of support for staff can ensure a happy and productive workforce and if therefore a valuable asset to your company.

This bulletin is for general guidance only and should not be used for any other purpose. It does not constitute, and should not be relied upon as legal advice.

JMW Solicitors is a Limited Liability Partnership.

The copyright in this article is owned by JMW. Any reproduction of this article should be credited to JMW. All rights reserved.

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Jennifer Smith is a Partner located in Manchester in our Employment department

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