It has now been one year since the initial restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19 were imposed. According to a study by Mind in 2018, up to 40% of GP appointments are related to mental health. Covid has resulted in more people experiencing mental health concerns as well as worsening symptoms.

The effect of the pandemic on mental health has been universal, as people have been forced to deal with self-isolation, remote working and general anxiety about the virus. Working conditions and environment in particular have a huge impact on mental health and, equally, someone’s mental health can have a significant impact to perform well in their job.

Around 1 in 7 people experience mental health problems in the workplace, according to mentalhealth.org.uk. When organisations fail to confront the issue and provide employees with the appropriate support, it will often impair their ability to do their job further down the line. In recent years, presenteeism has been on the rise and evidence suggests that 12.7% of all sickness absence days in the UK can be attributed to mental health related circumstances.

As we come up to a year of working through the pandemic, with many expecting to continue working from home for a while yet, the onus must be on businesses to go above and beyond to support their employees. Working remotely shouldn’t mean working alone and it’s in the interest of employers to be a driving force in improving the wellbeing of their staff.

Now more than ever, it is important for organisations to be vocal and make the most of internal communication channels so that employees feel connected and valued. This approach sends a clear message that staff wellbeing matters and will encourage people to come forward when they are struggling. Promoting a culture of honesty can help employees feel more safe being open about their situation and asking for help when needed.

For many people, working from home has also blurred the lines between office and home life which makes it difficult to strike a healthy balance. It’s important for businesses to take stock and be honest about the causes of mental health problems. Leaders need to encourage flexible working and be aware of unmanageable workloads so that employees can redefine the boundaries between home and work and avoid burning out.

It is also important however, to recognise that organisations can only do so much. It is their responsibility to listen and provide support where possible, but they aren’t trained clinicians and they shouldn’t attempt to be. If an employee is really struggling, encouraging and helping them to access professional help is the best course of action.

One of the factors contributing to the rise in the severity of mental health symptoms is people avoiding contacting services for support. Some people have been worried about exposure to Covid or felt conflicted about potentially burdening the NHS on top of the pandemic response. If an employee expresses this concern, remind them that the NHS is still open to the public and services are there to support them. Encourage them to seek help and reassure them that many services have successfully implemented measures to operate in a Covid-secure way. 

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of promoting good mental health in the workplace, across all industries and ways in which employers can work to reduce the associated stigma of voicing their struggles. However, the events of the past year have also shown how much work there is still to do in ensuring that employees not only feel empowered to speak up when they are struggling, but that effective interventions and support services are easily accessible when they are needed. Increasing awareness is a small step towards creating an empathetic and effective system in the future that supports employees when they need it the most.