As the UK tries to deal with the enormous challenge of fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, the most immediate risk to people's health is from the spread of the infection. The CIPD has been working hard for several weeks to help guide employers on how best to protect its workforce and place people’s health and wellbeing at the heart of its response to the crisis. A new CIPD hub page responding to the coronavirus contains a range of resources and advice.

However, the pandemic has far-reaching consequences for society and the workplace beyond the immediate crisis. Its potential impact on people’s mental health is one of the most pressing issues now facing organisations.

In March, the CIPD launched its twentieth survey report examining trends in sickness absence, health and wellbeing. There are some key findings around mental health that are highly relevant to how employers should be reviewing their mental health support for employees now and after the pandemic.

The findings reinforce what we already know - that the main risks to people’s health at work are already psychological. The research also finds that three-fifths (60 per cent) of organisations reported an increase in common mental health conditions (such as anxiety and depression) among employees over the last year. The pandemic will exacerbate these conditions for many and is another reason for employers to seriously step up their efforts.

The research also shows that HR professionals need to understand the deeper organisational factors that are influencing people's behaviour and their health. For example, heavy workloads and 'management style' are once again the top two causes of stress at work and a huge proportion of respondents (86%) cite the inability to switch off out of work hours as the main negative impact of technology on employee wellbeing. These unhealthy stressors could have even greater significance now that many people are working from home, relying more on technology and with less access to face-to-face contact with their manager and colleagues. Working entirely from home will also place new demands on people and it’s vital that employers and managers think carefully about how they will support people working in new, flexible and remote ways.

Mental health is a priority but more effective steps needed

Encouragingly, the findings show that more employers are stepping up their efforts to foster mentally healthy workplaces. In particular, more are increasing awareness of mental health issues across the workforce (70%, up from 31% in 2016) and training managers to support staff with mental ill health (51%, up from 22% in 2016). These findings are welcome.

However, more organisations need to adopt a systematic approach to preventing and managing psychological risk. This means that some organisations are making more progress than others in tackling work-related stress and supporting good mental health. A third of those who report that stress-related absence has increased in their organisation are not taking any steps to address it, for example.

It's disappointing that we have seen very little increase this year in the proportion of organisations taking a preventative approach to managing stress, for example by carrying out stress risk assessments/audits. Last year, just under half (48%) adopted this approach and our current findings show the percentage doing so has crept up to just over half (52%).

The HSE has developed a range of practical tools and resources to support employers (see Stress Risk Assessment), including the Talking Toolkit. This guidance is designed to help managers start a conversation with their employees in identifying stressors and to help manage and prevent work-related stress. It’s a simple, practical approach that enables employers, particularly SMEs, to begin the process of identifying and managing risks.

Line managers: the weak link in the chain?

Not enough organisations are equipping line managers with the knowledge and skills to support people’s health. Therefore, it’s not surprising that less than a third (31%) agree managers are 'confident to have sensitive discussions and signpost staff to expert sources of help if needed' and only a quarter (25%) that they 'are confident and competent to spot the early warning signs of mental ill health.'

Managers play a crucial role in influencing people’s wellbeing. The fact that ‘management style’ is the second main cause of work-related stress shows how negative the impact can be if they don’t go about their people management role in the right way. They need the confidence and skill to build supportive relationships with team members and ensure workloads are manageable.

Increasing responsibility is now placed on line managers to support people’s mental wellbeing but we are not seeing a big enough increase in the level of training and support they receive so they can rise to this challenge. Managers should not be expected to be health experts but they do need to recognise the value of health and wellbeing at work, be able to spot early warning signs of ill health, have the competence and confidence to have sensitive conversations, direct employees to appropriate sources of help and actively promote attendance and wellbeing.

Managing people, and their health and wellbeing, is a big job – and an important one. Managers’ own health and wellbeing could be at risk if they are being charged with responsibilities they are not competent to carry out, such as dealing with complex ill health issues, preventing work-related stress, sensitively managing a return-to-work and implementing effective workplace adjustments. To carry out their role effectively, managers need the behaviours, education and capability they will only gain from receiving the right training, support and expert guidance. It’s the people profession that needs to ensure this happens.

Act now to provide mental health support

The CIPD is warning that employers need to act now to help prevent people from being at serious risk of mental ill health during and after the Covid-19 pandemic. Fear of infection and feeling isolated, along with concerns about job or income loss are just some of the knock-on effects from the pandemic that are all likely to increase the pressure and stress people are under.

We are urging all employers to take the following steps during the crisis:

  • support and guide line managers so that they feel equipped to have sensitive and supportive discussions with staff
  • remind managers about the importance of communicating regularly with their team and asking how they are
  • encourage staff to practise self-care such as a healthy routine for diet, sleep and relaxation
  • promote existing health and wellbeing benefits and support, for example signposting people to their counselling helpline.

The following resources could be helpful:

About the author

Rachel Suff, Senior Policy Adviser, Employee Relations

Rachel Suff joined the CIPD as a policy adviser in 2014 to increase the CIPD’s public policy profile and engage with politicians, civil servants, policy-makers and commentators to champion better work and working lives. An important part of her role is to ensure that the views of the profession inform CIPD policy thinking on issues such as health and wellbeing, employee engagement and employment relations. As well as conducting research on UK employment issues, she helps guide the CIPD’s thinking in relation to European developments affecting the world of work. Rachel’s prior roles include working as a researcher for XpertHR and as a senior policy adviser at Acas.

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