The impact of the pandemic on mental health: Updated Government Report

The Government’s Office for Health Improvement and Disparities recently published its updated COVID-19 mental health and wellbeing surveillance report. This report looks at population mental health and wellbeing in England during the coronavirus pandemic. It’s information is used when deciding on policy, planning and commissioning in health and social care. However, individual organisations can also benefit from the findings of the report and use these to develop their own HR strategies.

Whilst the report contains an abundance of data on a number of differing factors and considerations, some key conclusions can be extracted which will most interest employers. Firstly, some groups of people were more likely to experience poor or deteriorating mental health during the pandemic. These include women, young adults (aged between 18-34), adults with pre-existing mental or physical health conditions, adults experiencing loss of income or employment, adults in deprived neighbourhoods and some ethnic minority populations. However, women and young people, people with lower levels of education and people living with children, following initial deterioration, also reported greater improvements and recoveries in mental health when case numbers had fallen, and lockdowns were eased. This being said, many still experience ongoing difficulties with their mental health.

The report found the effect of the pandemic on mental health has been particularly pronounced for those working in professional and technical industries, hospitality, customer service occupations, small employers and the self-employed, as well as female workers. Such industries should consider strategies for avoiding burnout and to improve retention, as it is likely these are subsequent issues they now face.

Significantly, long-term mental health struggles were highest amongst younger people, women, people living without a partner, those who had no work or lost income, and those with previous health conditions or COVID-19 symptoms. As such, employers should ensure there is adequate support in place for these staff members. The provision of an employee assistance programme (EAP), introduction of mental health first aiders, offering of flexible working arrangements and dedicated paid wellbeing or “duvet days” can go a long way to effectively assist those experiencing ongoing psychological distress.

As we move into a “Living with Covid” society, more information is becoming available on the impact of long-Covid on employees’ mental health and emotional wellbeing. Research found that many people with long-Covid feel a sense of shame, guilt and reduced self-worth associated with returning to work. It also found that those with long-Covid had concerns about functional difficulties (i.e. not being able to function at previous levels), and that those difficulties may not be visible to others.

Where employers are aware their employee has been absent with long-Covid, they should ensure regular welfare meetings are conducted, so they are kept up to date with how they are feeling and what support measures would be of most benefit to them. The Equality and Human Rights Commission said employers should presume those suffering with long-Covid are protected as having a disability under the Equality Act, to avoid the risk of discrimination or unfair dismissal claims being raised. Therefore, employers should consider what reasonable adjustments should be implemented to better support them in the workplace. This may be adjusting performance targets, amending working days or hours, providing longer or more frequent rest breaks, or assigning lighter duties.

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