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COVID-19 and mental health

March 26, 2020

This article covers the fast-moving situation surrounding COVID-19 and how employers can support their employees in these uncertain times.
Wellbeing|Risk Management Consulting
Pandemic Risk and Response

The COVID-19 pandemic has sent the UK and many other parts of the world rapidly towards lockdown, with current orders from the UK government to ‘stay at home’, leaving the house only for essential supplies, to fulfil medical or care needs, to exercise once a day or travel to work where ‘absolutely essential’1. Drastic changes in how we work and live our lives have happened overnight. As we start to come to terms with this new reality, how do we adapt and react to the emerging risks the current changes bring upon us, particularly those involving our people?

1 in 6
UK working age adults experience symptoms associated with mental ill health

Wellbeing encompasses physical, emotional, financial and social health. Rightly so, the response to the crisis is to preserve physical health by controlling the spread of infection, but necessary measures put in place to do this can increase risks in other areas. Alongside increased health anxiety, self-isolation and social distancing, financial and socio-economic implications and changes in the way we work all impact on employee wellbeing and can increase the risks to the mental health of our workers. Yet now more than ever is the time we need our people to be resilient, adaptable and innovative to deal with difficult business challenges.

The link between isolation and poor mental health has been around long before COVID-19 emerged. Social isolation and persistent stress and anxiety are risk factors for depression, anxiety and suicidal behaviour with 1 in 6 of the UK working age adults having symptoms associated with mental ill health2. With isolation now forced upon many of us out of necessity, it is worth remembering that not everyone is going in to this crisis with the same level of mental health, and a crisis of this magnitude could mean those experiencing poor mental health already could be even more vulnerable.

A crisis of this magnitude could mean those experiencing poor mental health already could be even more vulnerable

When the workplace changes the hazards change; and in the current crisis without adequate time to assess and control those hazards. With the pandemic heightening stress generally, how can we reduce additional stresses from the changing workplace as far as possible for employees? Considering the six Management Standards from the Health & Safety Executive3 to manage workplace stress may provide us with some focus.

Demands – In some sectors such as health and social care, grocery retailers and logistics, workload demands have already increased significantly with the continuing challenge of labour shortages and a heightened risk of exposure to the virus for key workers. In others, the cancellation of mass gatherings and events and the impact of social distancing has led to work cancellation and too few demands which poses an equal risk of stress or ‘rust out’. New and innovative ways of working not only improve the chances of keeping businesses afloat, but also support employee wellbeing by challenging workers to explore and learn new ways of working. Demands will arise from the home working environment itself, with schools closed and families living and working in the same space 24/7 or for those on the front line, increased risk of abuse from stressed members of the public.

Control – Going to work each day can provide a familiar routine, loss of which requires the creation of new work routines and a shift in mindset, with individuals having to draw more on their own resources. Some may welcome the change enabling them to have more control and flexibility over their working day, whilst others who favour structure may need additional support with setting boundaries between work and home life, scheduling routines and work zones etc. to ensure they remain productive and mentally healthy. Conversely, for ‘key workers’, health and safety factors will likely mean more control to protect health and prevent spread of the virus. During this crisis, help employees to distinguish between what they can and cannot control and encourage them to focus on what they can control, and to let go of what they cannot.

Support – Support can be on a practical and emotional level. Practically, this might be supporting with the right resources to function remotely, be that equipment, online help for technical issues, or teaching them how to use the latest virtual conferencing tool. Emotionally, this is a time for leaders to show empathy and compassion in their approach and one which will reveal those leaders promoted because of technical competency over people skills. Be accessible and have an open door for raising concerns. Be alive to those in high vulnerability categories or whose family is affected and may need more time out than others. Provide access to resources to improve personal resilience and cope with stress to help employees help themselves. Promote and utilise networks such as Mental Health First Aiders/Champions to support and signpost together and check with your employee benefits providers on services they may offer such as telemedicine or virtual counselling.

Relationships - Strong healthy working relationships are a buffer against stress in tough times and in times of isolation require active work to maintain. Maintain good communication systems and formal means of contact with teams in a way which fosters quality connections, ideally visually with the use of digital technology for home workers. Encourage ‘check ins’ at the start of meetings to see how people are feeling generally. Schedule virtual coffee breaks or lunchtime informal virtual get togethers and encourage participation, although be mindful of those who might find the increased use of technology heavy on the brain. Keep connected and watch/listen out for changes in behaviour which could indicate a colleague’s mental health may be deteriorating.

Role – In the short term, job roles may change quickly to adapt with changes caused by the current crisis in which case be clear about role expectations. The impact on the economy is likely to fuel fear and uncertainty about the security of jobs but avoid speculating and fuelling that fear. Be creative with short-term solutions such as voluntary leave or reduced hours which can maintain longer term security of jobs.

Change – With change occurring rapidly as the crisis unfolds, uncertainty is guaranteed. As organisations and as individuals, minimise the noise and look for the facts – ask yourself ‘what do we know for sure?’. Communicate with your employees clearly, honestly and accurately in ways which everyone can understand. Take notice of exactly where you are now and surrender to the uncertainty, as analysing possible future disastrous outcomes hinders your clarity of response to here and now issues.

Never has it been more important for managers to know their teams to support mental wellbeing and reduce workplace stress in this time of crisis. Being able to spot signs of deteriorating mental health is often much easier when in physical contact, but more challenging remotely. ‘Social distancing’ is part of the government’s strategy to control the spread of this virus, although with connection playing such an important role in attaining good mental health, perhaps we should think more in terms of ‘physical distancing’ and ‘social connection’.

Each applicable policy of insurance must be reviewed to determine the extent, if any, of coverage for COVID-19. Coverage may vary depending on the jurisdiction and circumstances. For global client programs it is critical to consider all local operations and how policies may or may not include COVID-19 coverage.

The information contained herein is not intended to constitute legal or other professional advice and should not be relied upon in lieu of consultation with your own legal and/or other professional advisors. Some of the information in this publication may be compiled by third party sources we consider to be reliable, however we do not guarantee and are not responsible for the accuracy of such information. We assume no duty in contract, tort, or otherwise in connection with this publication and expressly disclaim, to the fullest extent permitted by law, any liability in connection with this publication. Willis Towers Watson offers insurance-related services through its appropriately licensed entities in each jurisdiction in which it operates.

The information given in this publication is believed to be accurate at the date of publication shown at the top of this document. This information may have subsequently changed or have been superseded and should not be relied upon to be accurate or suitable after this date.





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