Covid-19 and Mental Health

We have focused a lot over the past few months on the various changes to the employment law landscape because of the impact of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. Whilst new terms such as “lockdown” and “shielding” enter our lives, one issue which has remained a constant throughout is the impact of the national lockdown on mental health.

With the introduction of the UK shutdown in March 2020 and the more recent restrictions imposed in November 2020, the effects are being felt by employers when it comes to the mental health of their staff.

Working from home was a new concept for many and the isolation that comes with it has caused stresses which, to date, are unmeasured. Whether the employee is on their own at home, looking after children (or older relatives) whilst maintaining their working hours, or even going into a physical workplace due to the nature of their role, knowing they are at risk, some have suffered acute anxiety and stress as a result.

We have received regular requests for advice from customers on how to manage employees’ concerns about their mental health and how to ensure discrimination claims do not arise.

What steps can employers take?

Communication is key.

  • No employee likes to be forgotten. Regular scheduled meetings with staff, including one-to-ones, helps an employee to feel they are being seen and listened to. We have found the use of video conferencing technology has supported many employees to manage their anxiety through this time. However, often a friendly telephone call can suffice.
  • Encourage staff to tell you what is on their mind. Discuss workloads and expectations. Make adjustments if it is clear a member of staff is not coping, this could include amending working hours and adjusting deadlines. Some may need time off.
  • Inform staff of any Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) you may have to offer as well as any helplines to deal with stress and anxiety. You may want to consider having a mental health ‘champion’ – someone at work who leads on changing attitudes to mental health. 
  • Encourage team coffee breaks or social activities – such as quizzes – to give everyone the opportunity to catch up in a relaxed setting. It may be that a team member does not enjoy these interactions. Speak to them and ask them how you can help.
  • You can contact furloughed employees to make sure they are okay as well.
  • Acas suggests the following as signs of mental health problems:
    • appearing tired, anxious or withdrawn
    • increase in sickness absence or being late to work
    • changes in the standard of their work or focus on tasks
    • being less interested in tasks they previously enjoyed
    • changes in usual behaviour, mood or how the person behaves with the people they work with.
  • Be clear about confidentiality. Reassure the member of staff that what they say will remain confidential and you will not share information without their permission unless there is a good reason to. If there is, you should be clear about who you will share the information with.

With the Christmas period ahead, and the potential for some staff having to forgo seeing family members this year, it is more than ever important to keep employee health and safety in mind, create a happy and motivated working environment and protect the business from discrimination claims.


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Author: Rafia Ahmad

Senior Solicitor, ESP Law Ltd

Rafia trained and qualified with Wedlake Bell LLP, a London City law firm where she was an employment solicitor for six years before moving to the fast paced trading floor of Cantor Fitzgerald LLP, a London based New York prime brokerage/investment bank as in-house employment counsel. Prior to joining ESP, Rafia was a senior employment solicitor for five years with Backhouse Jones, the UK’s number one national road transport law firm. She advises on all employment matters both contentious and non-contentious including tribunal proceedings.

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