COVID-19 And Mental Health: The Second Pandemic

It’s hard to believe that a year ago ‘furlough’ was an unfamiliar word for most of us. But now, in what has been the most extraordinary year, furlough is in common parlance and is likely to be with us for some time.

More than that, furlough has been a lifeline for businesses juggling the challenges of retaining staff while operating in difficult trading conditions and experiencing a substantial drop in income.

The recent news that the furlough scheme (otherwise known as the Job Retention Scheme) will be extended until the end of March 2021 has been welcomed by business leaders, and will ease some of the pressure on cash-strapped businesses.

The Hidden Cost Of Furlough

While at first, some workers may have happily accepted the decision of their employers to furlough them, the long-term implications for staff on extended furlough may be serious and wide-reaching.

Work offers stability and a sense of purpose, so removing it (even temporarily) can have a negative impact on a person’s mental health. Anxiety regarding job security and issues of value and self-worth may also arise, as employees question the decision-making process behind which staff were retained, and which were placed on extended furlough.

For workers who were asked by their employers to undertake inappropriate work tasks while furloughed, there is the added pressure of a moral and legal question regarding what to do.

This comes on top of balancing the household finances with only 80% of their regular pay packets. Unsurprisingly, managing this level of uncertainty over a long period of time is having significant repercussions on businesses and their teams.

A Mental Health Crisis Waiting To Happen?

In May, the first forecast by the Centre for Mental Health indicated that an additional 500,000 people would experience mental health issues over the next year in the wake of COVID-19; this would equate to an additional 12,500 people in Devon alone.

Subsequent assessments by the Centre for Mental Health suggest a number of additional factors could also cause a rise in psychological distress. These include unemployment, seasonal flu, and a possible no-deal Brexit.

Implementing practices to monitor and manage the wellbeing of your team will be time well spent, and could prove a wise investment in your business as you build it back to full strength.

For example, analysis by Deloitte in January 2020 revealed that poor mental health costs UK employers up to £45 billion a year – and this figure is pre-pandemic.

The Deloitte report also highlights the impact that prevention and early intervention can have on mental health in the workplace. For example, it states that for every £1 spent by employers on mental health interventions, they get £5 back in reduced absences, presenteeism, and staff turnover.

Building A Culture Of Support

When thinking about the wellbeing of staff on furlough, it might be useful to take guidance from the procedures in place for women who are on maternity leave, or for people who are absent due to long-term health conditions.

You should keep staff up to date with what’s happening in the organisation, and check-in with them regularly – taking the time to reassure them that they are a valued member of the team, and you will welcome their return.

If you find someone is struggling, then point them to where they can get support.

Adapting For The Future With Step One

Looking to the future, consider how you will support your team as they return to the workplace following furlough. Try to manage the anxiety of staff who have experienced an extended period off work, and consult with them about the best way to re-integrate them into your business.

This could also be a great opportunity to review the way mental health is regarded in your organisation – do people feel able to discuss their mental health? Are people supported in their recovery from poor mental health? Do you and your team leaders know what to look for in identifying someone who may have mental health issues?

You may need some support in addressing the questions above. At Step One, we can help.

We have launched BeWell@StepOne – a free online learning and training programme for individuals who need support for their mental health.

Through BeWell@StepOne, you can direct your staff to 4-week and 6-week remote learning courses for topics such as anxiety, managing change, and building resilience.

These courses could be a valuable resource for all staff, but particularly for furloughed staff who may be experiencing mental health issues for the first time and are finding it difficult to access support through their GP.

We are a Devon-based charity who have been working to support individuals with their mental health for 80 years. It was a logical step to share that expertise with businesses and organisations in Devon, and to offer First Aid for Mental Health Courses through our Thriving Workplace scheme.

Amy Erith, Thriving Workplace and BeWell@StepOne project manager, said: ‘We realised that workplaces were not thriving and people were finding things really hard, so we created the BeWell@StepOne project to offer innovative online delivery for mental health support through training and peer support.’

‘We’re still working with businesses, but we’re also offering individual support remotely. It’s our goal to reach, and offer mental health support to, as many people as we can.’

Building A Stronger Team

Amy and her team of qualified and experienced trainers can help you create a wellbeing strategy for your team – putting in place that early support which can help nurture positive mental health in your staff, while protecting your business from the significant costs of supporting people with serious mental health issues.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ process when it comes to developing a wellbeing strategy for businesses, but providing training for your managers and support for your staff will help you create an approach which is right for the unique culture of your company.

Written By: Step One

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