Mental Health Awareness Week: employers must recognise coronavirus challenges

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As Mental Health Awareness Week begins this week, the conciliation service Acas has published new guidance to help employers and employees support mental wellbeing while they are working from home or on furlough.

The guidance, which focuses on mental health support during the coronavirus pandemic specifically, was published alongside the results of an Acas-commissioned YouGov survey which found half of people working from home felt isolated and seven in 10 were missing social interactions at work.

Acas chief executive Susan Clews said: “The coronavirus lockdown has created lots of extra challenges such as a lack of social contact with work colleagues, feeling alone, trapped or struggling with childcare responsibilities. There’s also a real anxiety around the impact of the virus itself, job security concerns whilst on furlough and genuine worries around whether it is safe to physically return back to their workplace.

“Our new coronavirus mental health advice covers all of these different workplace situations and offers practical advice on how workers, managers and bosses can support their colleagues during this difficult time.”

Meanwhile, a survey by health insurer Aon found 79% of employers had enhanced or further promoted their employee assistance programmes since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, while 73% had offered staff flexible working hours and 87% had increased communications from senior leaders.

Kindness matters

Charles Alberts, head of health management at Aon, said: “The theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is kindness – which is timely and appropriate given the varied challenges that we are all faced with at the moment. There are signs of increased empathy and kindness from employers towards their employees in such difficult times.”

The importance of kindness during tough times was also highlighted by the Mental Health Foundation, which runs the awareness week and found 63% of 4,256 adults it polled agreed that being kind to others or receiving an act of kindness from another had a positive effect on their mental health.

The charity recommended government departments apply a measurable, values-based “kindness test” to current and new policies to ensure they are informed by kindness, equality, dignity and respect.

Mark Rowland, Mental Health Foundation chief executive, said: “At one level, kindness can be as simple as phoning a friend who is lonely or thanking a colleague for something they have done. However, to have a major impact on improving our mental health, we need to take kindness seriously as a society. In particular, we need to make kindness an important part of public policy.

“The pandemic is an opportunity to do that. Kindness can play an essential role in reducing the social, economic and mental health consequences of the crisis, that could last for years to come.”

Simon Blake, chief executive of Mental Health First Aid England, said the pandemic has shown organisations’ potential for “huge acts of kindness”, including businesses donating essentials to key workers and the fast creation of vital equipment, such as ventilators, for the NHS.

“Employers have a duty of care to support the many people continuing to work from home, and to help those transitioning back to physical workplaces and protect psychological safety as they do,” he said. “For the sake of every individual’s wellbeing and for the continued survival and fight back of businesses and the economy we must ensure mental health is at the top of the boardroom agenda.”

Mental health first aid

Recognising that many organisations will be promoting the services of their trained mental health first aiders (MHFAs) during this time, Christine Husbands, managing director of RedArc – which provides nursing services to businesses – said firms must not forget the pressures voluntary MHFAs will be under themselves.

“Being an MHFA is an additional responsibility that individual employees decide to take on, but at the present moment they may be finding that an increasing proportion of their working time is spent supporting others,” she said.

“They play an important role in an overall health and wellbeing strategy of an organisation, but employers need to ensure they are properly supported too. As nurses, we understand first-hand the importance of this and have formal support processes in place for our own nurses.”

Husbands recommended that employers consider taking the following steps to support MHFAs:

  • setting up a buddy system
  • introducing a group session for MHFAs opportunity to share experiences, best practice, tips and support, facilitated by a professional
  • introducing a secure online forum for MHFAs
  • running refresher courses
  • monitoring the workload of MHFAs
  • offering MHFAs additional “mental wellbeing time”, where they are given flexibility to ensure good self-care or access to complementary therapies
  • offering MHFAs access to a clinically trained mental health professional to discuss any difficulties they are having and to ensure that the role doesn’t take a toll on their own mental wellbeing.

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