As we begin to look beyond the pandemic, it is going to be more important than ever that HR and occupational health work together, and help each, to promote effective health and wellbeing interventions, argues Brendan Street.
As the Covid-19 crisis hit back in March last year, many commented that it didn’t discriminate. It initially seemed that the nation collectively experienced the distress and challenges to mental wellbeing brought about by the current pandemic.
However, as the situation unfolded, it became increasingly clear that its impact is not being felt in equal ways across society. Nuffield Health’s recent whitepaper shows several social groups are more at risk of poor mental health, exacerbated by Covid-19.
The story so far
Before the government announced compulsory lockdowns, no one could have predicted a world in which businesses moved en masse, and seemingly overnight, to remote working models.
Despite the unplanned nature of this transition, businesses adapted quickly to the change with some initial indicators suggesting the transition was initially at least, more successful than could have previously been anticipated.
Given the unpredictable path of the pandemic, together with data collected relating to the impact of remote working, many businesses are now considering new ways of working.
Research from Nuffield Health has outlined the potential benefits of remote working, in relation to employee stress, wellbeing and productivity.
Our research also, however, discusses the challenges presented by a remote working model, especially where employees are spending more than 2.5 days a week working away from the office.
At this point, risks start to outweigh benefits, more extensive remote working patterns present the hazards of deterioration in co-worker relationships reduced job satisfaction, as well as the risk of isolation, overload, and burnout. Notably, these risks were identified in a world without Covid-19 and non-enforced remote working.
While the pandemic has affected everyone’s mental health to some degree, research studies, media headlines and insight from community groups suggest that certain groups in society have been harder hit and that existing inequalities have been exacerbated.
These groups include:
- Those living with low resources
- Frontline/key workers
- Working parents
- BAME groups
- LGBTQ+ groups
- Those in education
In this article, I intend to discuss some of the groups most affected and how OH practitioners can support workplaces to access the support they need, earlier.
Those living with low resources
Living with low resources, has been described as the ‘cause of all causes of mental ill health’ and studies show the physical and mental health of those living with low resources has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
The think-tank The Work Foundation has highlighted the financial challenges of low-wage employees – who it described as “squeezed, exposed and at risk of being overlooked”. Again, this analysis was before a global pandemic took place.
Covid-19 has brought further negative contributing factors, including increased financial worries due to redundancy. The risks of unemployment have a significant impact on mental health. Research suggests 34% of unemployed people experienced psychosocial issues, compared to 16% of employed individuals.
Other concerns include being furloughed on less pay, being unable to work due to additional care responsibilities and expanded living expenses.
Employers should offer advice on the actions employees can take to help settle some of these financial concerns.
This could include financial benefits, education, and open discussions in virtual workshops. These usually focus on making the most of existing income through money management and savings plans. Some include information on company pensions and investments.
Offering staff, the opportunity to follow up on a more personal basis in a one-to-one meeting, or even to watch a webcast in private, is another way to normalise the subject of money difficulties.
It is important not to underestimate the shame that employees experiencing money difficulties often feel.
Many businesses offer financially focused employee benefits, such as income protection, critical illness and life insurance, all of which can provide a financial safety net should workers encounter the unexpected.
Consideration should also be made regarding earned wage access (allowing employees to receive a portion of their wages for hours they have already worked but not yet been paid for by their employer).
The links between financial distress, debt and mental health are crucial for employers to consider. Employers can work with occupational health specialists to signpost the options available for those whose financial position is already impacting their mental health. This could be by an employee assistance programme (EAP), debt counselling or a workplace loan scheme.
The impact on men
Nearly 38% of men reported a negative effect on their mental health during the first lockdown. The Samaritans reports poorer middle-aged men as being most at risk of suicide during the Covid-19 crisis.
Employers can work with occupational health to ensure specific policy models are appropriately tailored to gendered health interventions.
The most important issue for employers to address isn’t whether or not health promotion programmes should be introduced, but rather how they are created and evaluated to achieve optimal results.
The core of occupational health is, of course, assessing every employee as an individual. Aspects of different industries necessitate different approaches within different sectors.
A universal health strategy should still focus on general physical and mental health promotion like the importance of a healthy diet, physical activity, and sleep hygiene. But there should be more effort put into tailoring policies to appeal to different genders.
For example, as mentioned earlier, male mental health has been seriously impacted by the pandemic. However, when it comes to addressing male mental health research suggests that men who can’t speak openly about their emotions may be less able to recognise symptoms of mental health problems in themselves, and less likely to reach out for support.
As such, the language endorsed in the workplace regarding mental health is key. Companies should work with OH and emotional wellbeing experts to ensure these services are presented differently.
In our latest white paper More than Words, we suggest focusing on health generally, (in other words, physical and mental), rather than just mental health.
Furthermore, specific policies should be targeted at groups considered to be at “high risk” of mental ill health and engagement in adverse health behaviours.
In a workplace environment this might include men working in high-risk sectors (for example construction, agriculture, machine operators, laborers, and unskilled manual workers) and men who are experiencing traumatic emotional events, such as a divorce or a relationship breakdown.
Working parents at home
Covid-19 has seen huge swathes of the population end up working from home, in the process often working longer hours than usual.
Mental distress was reported in two-thirds of workers whose working week increased and who were also engaged in higher-than-average active childcare.
A recent study revealed 60% of working parents were unable to find alternative childcare following closures. This resulted in parents spending 27 additional hours each week on household chores, childcare, and education — comparable to working a second job.
The needs of working parents can vary, so different types of flexible work arrangements should be welcomed to help staff care for their families. Flexible arrangements could include teleworking, the opportunity to work hours around child home schooling and compressing the work week.
Part of the remit of occupational health should be to engage with and empower employees to take care of themselves through promoting activities and wellness programmes.
So, ensuring staff are aware of other support measures, such as paid sick leave, employment protection, and monetary transfers like child benefits and health subsidies is imperative.
On top of this, employers should ensure parents have access to remote psychological services (such as cognitive behavioural therapy). This is valuable not only for themselves, but an offer that can usefully be extended to other family members, including children.
At Nuffield Health, for example, we have seen a 62% increase in referrals for under-18s requiring emotional wellbeing services since the start of the pandemic.
Parents too have been experiencing significant distress. Attempting to combine working from home with childcare often leads to home schooling feeling like “home duelling”.
A recent survey commissioned by Nuffield Health revealed that two-thirds of working parents say they are suffering from “mental distress” due to the pressures of balancing work and home during the pandemic.
Forums and groups specifically for parents that are held during lunchtimes or after work can provide a space for employees to meet other parents, share and learn from each other, and discuss everything that comes with family life. These can also work virtually and are a good environment to host guest speakers too.
The impact on millennials
Mental health issues could develop more frequently among remote workers – particularly younger demographics, like Millennials – as they find themselves separated from communication channels, guidance, and support mechanisms.
However, there is an unwillingness from people in this demographic, in distress, to seek help. To cite Nuffield Health research once again, our findings suggest the current disorder-led approach to mental health is one of the reasons many people – especially millennials – feel as though the distress they are experiencing is not severe enough to be considered “real”.
In fact, over a quarter of millennials (28%) believe “powering through” stress at work is expected.
And when high stress is seen as the norm, this can make people struggling, reluctant to discuss issues, or unaware of the importance of doing so. However, holding onto these emotions, continuing to overwork and pretending that everything’s fine can lead to more serious, long-term health problems.
Burnout has impacted more than 84% of millennials and causes a host of potential health issues like insomnia, high blood pressure and substance abuse.
During times of enforced remote working, where the lines between work/life balance are blurred, strong company wellbeing plans, driven by the advice of occupational health and wellbeing professionals and a supportive work environment are a must.
Managers should ensure younger employees are aware that there is structured, regular support to help them discuss and share any worries or concerns, even when working from home.
Providing younger demographics, like millennials, with non-medicalised language and conversation guides to enable them to not only discuss their mental health, but to support discussions with colleagues is essential.
Our whitepaper, again, is aimed at helping businesses to encourage empowering conversations around mental health, so more people access support earlier.
Now – the pandemic and its aftermath – presents an opportunity to change the nature and content of our language around mental health and mental fitness to facilitate more helpful conversations about mental health and support the entire UK workforce.
Employers might provide convenient online or telephone access to GPs, which millennial employees – as well as many other demographics – might find useful. CBT sessions delivered via online videoconferencing tend to be accepted more readily by this group. Likewise, remote delivery of mental health literacy/awareness materials and courses creates a scalable way to provide mental health support for this struggling generation.
When employers work alongside occupational health practitioners, they can help their HR teams put the most effective wellness policies and benefits in place.
Now, more than ever, occupational health and wellbeing providers can act as a source of expertise. In the process, they can play a key role in helping HR move away from reactive measures towards more proactive, valuable ones and, in turn, supporting businesses through a global pandemic and, perhaps as vitally, beyond.
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