Two studies have exposed just how detrimental the Covid-19 pandemic has been for mental health in the UK and beyond, leading to time off work and the rise of conditions including anxiety and depression. However, a health expert has warned this is just the ‘tip of the iceberg’.
One in three UK employees took time off work in 2021 because of their mental health, while almost half say their mental wellbeing has declined since the start of the pandemic, according to research by health services provider Westfield Health.
Mental health concerns were particularly prevalent in the south of England; 46% of survey respondents in the South said their mental health has worsened over the past two years, compared with 39% in the North.
People in the South were more likely to take a day off work for their mental health (34%) than those in the North (26%).
Overall, 43% of UK workers said their mental health had worsened since February 2020 and 24% were now anxious about their work.
Kate Platts, research associate at Sheffield Hallam University’s Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre, said: “Personal wellbeing throughout the Covid-19 pandemic has been at a 10-year low and, although improvements in life satisfaction and happiness are now being seen, levels of anxiety remain high.
“The nation will take time to recover from the shock of such huge disruptions to everyday life. In August 2021, around three-quarters of those suffering from depression attributed their mental health issues at least in part to the pandemic.”
A global issue
The decline in mental health is being felt globally. A scientific briefing document published by the World Health Organization (WHO) this week showed the global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25% in the first year of Covid-19.
Women were more affected than men, WHO said, and younger people, especially those aged 20–24 years, were more affected than older adults.
It attributed the decline in mental wellbeing to social isolation and loneliness, fear of infection, bereavement and financial worries. Exhaustion has also triggered suicidal thoughts among health workers, it said.
Concerns about the increase in mental ill health has prompted 90% of countries surveyed to include mental health and psychosocial support in their pandemic response plans. However, WHO is concerned about gaps in care, particularly in resource-limited countries where deploying digital services to assist with the backlog in appointments is challenging.
The information we have now about the impact of Covid-19 on the world’s mental health is just the tip of the iceberg,” – Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, World Health Organization
“The information we have now about the impact of Covid-19 on the world’s mental health is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general. “This is a wake-up call to all countries to pay more attention to mental health and do a better job of supporting their populations’ mental health.”
Guidance for employers
Meanwhile, new mental wellbeing at work guidance has encouraged UK organisations to work with staff to tackle sources of stress and promote access to occupational health services and mental health interventions.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidance includes recommendations for organisation-wide and individual approaches to improving mental wellbeing at work, as well as advice for supporting those in occupations where staff face a higher risk of mental trauma, such as the emergency services.
Recommendations for organisation-wide approaches include:
- involving employees and workplace representatives in identifying and minimising sources of stress at work
- tailoring mental health interventions depending on the industry sector or size of the organisation
- giving all employees free access to occupational health services and an employee assistance programme, and raising awareness of their availability
- developing a plan for responding to unexpected traumatic events, such as the death of a colleague, a pandemic or a terrorist attack.
Individual-level approaches include:
- encouraging managers to create opportunities for socialising and discussions about general health and wellbeing
- encouraging managers to discuss mental health with their reports, including conversations to understand sources of stress; agree steps to minimise work-related stressors; and agree whether any additional professional help is needed.
For employees that are at a higher risk of poor mental health, organisations should:
- consider flexible working hours, job changes, or changes to workplace culture
- consider working with them to create a wellness action plan and assess whether this has highlighted changes that need to be made at an organisational level
- discuss what support is available to them and whether they require ongoing confidential conversations about their wellbeing
- offer or provide access to cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness training or stress management training, and reiterate that this support will continue to be available if they choose not to have it immediately.