On 18 May 2020, at the start of Mental Health Awareness Week in the United Kingdom, the UK government’s Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) published “Coronavirus and mental health at work,” a guide to how individuals can look after their mental health and how employers can “support employees’ health, safety, and well-being” while managing workplace mental health issues. The overriding message from the guidance is that good communication is key during this challenging time. The guidance also emphasises that employers should be aware of the signs of mental health concerns in the workplace and encourage openness between colleagues to support those who may be suffering.

On 4 May 2020, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released “Personal and Economic well-being in Great Britain,” a survey of “personal well-being and economic well-being covering the period October 2019 to April 2020 to understand the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on people and households in Great Britain.” The survey presented worrying news related to mental health:

Between 20 March and 30 March 2020, almost half (49.6%) of people in Great Britain reported “high” (rating 6 to 10) anxiety; this was sharply elevated compared with the end of 2019 (21%), and equates to over 25 million people (out of the population aged 16 years and over).

The same survey found that feelings of happiness and life satisfaction were substantially lower than before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. The most common concerns for people related to their well-being, finances, and work.

According to the Office for National Statistics, it is likely that a reduction in normal coping strategies that people use to maintain good mental health has contributed to the increase in mental health issues during the pandemic. For example, people are limited in their abilities to socialise and connect with others as they used to because both home and work life have been disrupted due to the enforced lockdown.

As the survey data highlights, the pandemic has generated fear in relation to health, finances, and employment; some people are also dealing with loss and bereavement. ACAS guidance notes that an employer may want to be alert to “possible signs” of employee mental health issues, including:

  • changes in the standard of work;
  • a lack of concentration and poor memory;
  • an increase in sickness absence;
  • apparent low mood; and
  • uncharacteristically low levels of tolerance with colleagues.

As the ACAS guidance points out, employers have a “duty of care”, which means that employers are required to take reasonable measures to support their employees’ health, safety, and wellbeing. ACAS indicates that during this period, when many workers are affected directly or indirectly by the pandemic, employers will find that good communication and flexibility with employees at all levels of seniority is essential. ACAS provides several suggestions for helping employees during this period. For example, if employers observe employees struggling, employers can arrange time for conversations or make referrals to occupational health experts, if appropriate. Employers may also want to schedule regular catch-ups with appropriate management if needed. For employees who are working from home or on furlough, employers can offer opportunities to socialise with colleagues via online chats or video calls. If employees’ concerns relate specifically to COVID-19, employers can take time to listen to and understand what those issues are and explain any adjustments that have been made to the working day or their working environments in order to ease their worries.

ACAS also emphasises that as part of their “duty of care” responsibility, employers should promote good self-care and not make assumptions about the well-being of their workforces. The law sets out minimum standards for employers to follow when it comes to the health and safety of employees; however, those minimum standards may not be sufficient, given the many potential mental health and well-being effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Employers that go above and beyond to make adjustments and provide support for employees will more than likely see improvements in employee engagement, absenteeism, presenteeism, and organisational culture.

Ogletree Deakins will continue to monitor and report on developments with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic and will post updates in the firm’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Resource Center as additional information becomes available. Important information for employers is also available via the firm’s webinar programs.

Daniella McGuigan is a partner is the London office of Ogletree Deakins.

Carrie-Ann Hopkins is a paralegal in the London office of Ogletree Deakins.

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