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How COVID-19 has impacted mental health and how to manage employee burnout

As the global COVID-19 pandemic continues to challenge life, work and business, its impact on mental health and wellbeing cannot be denied. Recent research reveals declining mental health in 41% of those who identified as having a mental health condition prior to the pandemic. And of course, many people are experiencing compromised mental health and wellbeing for the first time. For example, 19% of the 1,003 employers that we surveyed at the height of the pandemic, told us that managing a business during the pandemic has seen them experience problems for the first time.

With a prolonged cycle of lockdowns, “new normals” and illness comes a complex challenge to mental health and wellbeing: social isolation, financial worries and physical illness all take their toll. Different teams in different sectors face unique pressures and HR professionals are also having a tough time. This article explores some of these specific scenarios to better understand some actionable steps that can help mitigate poor mental health and wellbeing.

COVID-19 triggers for poor mental health and wellbeing

The Health Foundation outlines several root causes behind poor mental health and wellbeing in the wake of the pandemic, which their research suggests is affecting 69% of UK adults. The triggers can be broadly broken down into three key areas: 

  • Social isolation, housing security and quality, financial concerns, job losses, and a loss of coping mechanisms are seen to affect people across the board. 63% of adults feel worried about the future, 56% feel acutely stressed and anxious, whilst 49% complain of boredom during lockdown.

  • Separate to the concerns above (although not mutually exclusive) is the experience of fearing and living with the effects of COVID-19 and what has quickly been dubbed “Long Covid.” The physically debilitating impact of coronavirus in its acute and potentially longer-term manifestations has been reported to coincide with chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia. Evidence is still being gathered to understand if the virus causes the symptoms or if having a predisposition to these conditions modulates how the virus impacts the individual.

  • Front line workers have to juggle points one and two with their own personal outlook and fear register when it comes to coronavirus. In the case of health and social care workers, these personal concerns appear to be amplified by a sense of moral distress or moral outrage at not being able to deliver what they feel is the best standard of care in such fraught times.

Underpinning and exacerbating the above are increased access times and a reduced overall provision of mental health support services for many.

The impact on different sectors

Each sector is weathering the storm of the pandemic differently. Here at Benenden Health, we work in partnership with clients across all sectors, but our work in the following areas has allowed us to identify some patterns of impact.

Education

The education sector has experienced huge turbulence, with teachers having to adapt quickly to remote learning and associated technologies. A report summarised by Leeds Beckett University highlights the phenomenon of being visible: only 15% of teachers felt appreciated by the UK government, whilst only 25% felt appreciated by the general public. This tone appears to underpin the 50% of teachers reporting a decline in their mental health and wellbeing in the wake of the pandemic. It would appear that at a time of physical and social isolation, feeling more validated professionally would help to offset some of the feelings associated with anxiety and worry.

Construction

Loughborough University analysed the sector, working closely with national outfits, to express how construction has provided something of a blueprint for “the new normal,” having to rethink safety, compliance, supply chain breakdowns and fear management for those whose jobs depend on whether they can turn up to site or not. Whilst this report is very positive, we can infer the pressure on workers within this sector to be some of the frontrunners in trialling new ways of working and managing risk.

IT

When it comes to IT, it’s fair to say that reliable technology and robust infrastructure is in demand right now more than ever before. Whilst this bears positively on job security, it places pressure on the delivery and roll-out of services. With many IT teams working remotely themselves, an increased workload requires a team to pull together, under clear leadership, to pull through. This reminds us of the burnout so frequently reported in relation to working during the pandemic.

Finance

A broad industry, finance has been impacted in its own way. Around the country, individual finance teams are chasing overdue payments from customers, potentially struggling to meet invoices from suppliers and facing the task of forecasting P&L against such an uncertain future. Those working in financial services are dealing with sudden product retirement and a sense of volatility, which, in turn, leads to client management problems. This is an example of the challenges faced by professionals having to deal with a rapidly changing market and its emotional impact upon customers and clients.

Manufacturing

The Manufacturing Organisation UK’s Manufacturing Monitor reflects a very mixed bag of events: a very low outlook for future redundancies and two out of three employers advocating flexible working on the one hand, but on the other, 44% of organisations having made redundancies and only 1 in 2 believing that operations will be fully restored by the end of 2021. This rich and varied picture is illustrative of the uncertainty that presents professional and personal problems for so many of the UK’s workforce at the present time.

Retail

Retail workers and managers have had a tough time: closures, re-openings and re-closures have impacted the job security of many, whilst those working in essential retail have to manage the sense of fear and exposure that comes with being public-facing. A recent report by The Guardian highlighted burnout amongst those working in supermarket, due in part to dealing with general abuse from customers.

What about HR teams?

HR teams are feeling overburdened and, in many cases, conflicted with having to manage their personal concerns along with the welfare of entire teams who are going through similar experiences. The emotive element to the role intersects with how quickly legislation changes, which, at the best of times, requires diligence and focus to make sure that the team is looked after to high standards and in a legally compliant manner.

COVID-19 has introduced its own unique set of challenges, through the need to furlough team members, make redundancies and restructure. These business-driven decisions have huge emotional impact; not only on the team members affected, but on the HR people delivering bad news, helping to manage personal responses to situations - and doing this whilst knowing that their own role could be at jeopardy in circumstances where an organisation is failing commercially.

HR teams themselves are urged to access the very services and support they provide for their teams as they learn to cope with these new and significant responsibilities in their roles.

The stakes are high for employers

Last year, Deloitte published findings to suggest that poor mental health and wellbeing cost UK businesses up to £45bn per year. The reason behind this is only partially due to absenteeism. In fact, the driving factor behind this cost to business is the phenomenon of “presenteeism;” whereby employees are working when they shouldn’t, due to myriad factors, including fear of reprisals, a lack of clearly signposted help within the workplace and an overall stigma attached to conversations around mental health and wellbeing. This was an overwhelming finding of our own report into mental health and wellbeing in the workplace, which we carried out last year.

The positive of Deloitte’s analysis is that for every £1 invested in an employee’s mental health and wellbeing, the business gains £5 in reduced absence and presenteeism, along with far better rates of staff engagement and retention.

The best way forward is one of investment in your team, across all levels of seniority.

How can employers best help all of their team - and themselves?

Now, more than ever, we advise business owners, managers and HR professionals to examine the support they offer to their team: does it stand up to their own scrutiny and can they use it themselves?

At this very moment in time, a positive change needs to come from the top down; leading and advocating honest and open conversations around mental health and wellbeing at all levels. The use of trained mental health first aiders is particularly helpful if you need your team to know who they can go to talk to. Just remember to offer the same support to your mental health advocates!

To unlock a breadth and depth of support, you could consider partnering with a business healthcare partner. Our own Benenden Health for business package offers this organisational framework, with the support of a 24/7 mental health helpline, through to private treatment and diagnosis for physical and mental health concerns. Our deployment is quick and easy, with no medical questionnaires and a team that specialises in rolling out the benefits smoothly, whilst getting your team to buy into the investment you are making in them.

Contact us today to discover how we can fast track your company to a healthier and happier workforce with Benenden Health for business. We are holistic in our approach, and this is reflected by a package that looks after physical and mental wellbeing, at a price you can afford: just £11.90 per employee per month.

Find out how Benenden Healthcare for Business could support your employees:

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