Stressful times - out of sight and out of mind?

Published on
7 min read

The coronavirus pandemic has brought to the forefront many of the obvious risks that employers and their employees currently face. This includes the provision of suitable PPE and protocols for ensuring social distancing within the workplace. There are less obvious risks which may not yet have manifested such as work related stress, depression or anxiety that employers need to keep in mind.

As lockdown restrictions are easing, now is a good time for employers in private and public sectors to review internal policies and procedures to ensure employees are not placed under avoidable stress causing harm to their health, as this could turn into a potential claim. Colleagues are beginning to plan their return to the traditional workplace and these subtler risks may infiltrate those office-based businesses whose workforce has embraced remote working during recent months in line with the Government guidance.

The size of the problem

On 30 October 2019 the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) published:

  • 602,000 workers have reported to have suffered from work related stress, depression or anxiety in year ending 2018/19
  • 12.8m working days have been lost due to work related stress up to the end of the same period
  • Stress, depression or anxiety is more prevalent in public service industries such as education, health and social care, and public administration and defence
  • The main causes were workload pressures, including tight deadlines and too much responsibility and a lack of managerial support
  • Professionals that are common across public service industries (such as healthcare workers, teaching professionals and public service professionals) show higher levels of stress compared to all jobs
  • Employers with a larger workforce (250+ employees) had statistically higher rates of reported incidents of work related stress, depression or anxiety

This is a significant issue for all employers as it is estimated that 44% of work related ill health and 54% of working days lost in year ending 2018/2019 related to work related stress, depression or anxiety. 

The statistics are concerning. What has not been included is the unrecoverable costs of lost work days and valuable business time required to address cases where employees are suffering from work related stress, depression or anxiety. In light of the coronavirus crisis, it is suspected that the previous figures reported by the HSE will only increase.

More recently on 15 May 2020, the Royal College of Psychiatrists reported a 43% increase in urgent and emergency cases following the coronavirus lockdown. Psychiatrists are also concerned that many patients are staying away from mental health services. It is estimated that there is around a 45% fall in routine appointments which leads to a fear of a ‘tsunami’ of mental illness after the pandemic. 

Unintended consequence of the covid lockdown

On 16 March 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson advised against “non-essential” travel. He advised people should work from home if possible. On 23 March 2020 Boris Johnson announced a nationwide lockdown which included a drastic set of measures to restrict movements and the spread of the virus.  Thus, since at least mid-March 2020, a large section of the UK employed population has been working from home in line with the Government’s guidance. At the time of preparing this brief, it remains Government guidance that those who can work from home should continue to do so unless it is essential to travel for work purposes.

A large section of the UK population has continued working from home since mid-March 2020. Many, if not all, have faced new challenges, balancing work commitments in close proximity to carer responsibilities, doing all of that in a climate stoked with anxieties around job security, and the sometimes overwhelming dangers posed by the virus itself. There can be no doubt that the recent months have been challenging and have taken their toll on the physical and mental wellbeing of many.  The Office of National Statistics reports that 62% of the population are worried about the future and there has been a reported increase in anxiety.

Against that heightened “anxiety baseline” and as we slowly ease out of lockdown, it is essential for employers to re-evaluate their internal policies and procedures to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the workforce is protected. In so doing, employers can mitigate what is predicted to be an increased incidence of work related stress, depression or anxiety and the claims that follow, all of which could be considered an unintended consequence from this pandemic.

Employers’ duty

It should be remembered that whilst employees are working from home during this current climate, employers still owe a duty of care to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their staff. Even-though colleagues are “off the premises”, it must not become a case of “out of sight and out of mind”.

Whilst workloads and related duties remain the same (albeit now being carried out from home), the practicalities of delivering on all that are certainly not the same and must be considered. Every employee is an individual with unique aspects to their personal circumstances. Some will live alone, some will have carer responsibilities for young and old, with the added pressure of home schooling in many cases. Assimilating “the work” and what was “the home” creates challenges, conflicts and a genuine tension as people struggle to separate home from work life. Routines dissolve, days of the week merge into one another and “work” and “home” quite literally begin to feel exactly the same.

In these unusual circumstances, employers need to seek out the balance between maintaining its focus on “core business” while showing empathy, understanding and the sort of practical and holistic support that can help underpin the emotional welfare of its employees. Employers should appreciate everyone will experience a range of success/failure in blending their existing professional duties along with the conflicting pressures of a vastly confined and restricted home life. Allowances must be made for performance levels being below what would have once been regarded as the norm.

Signs for concern

The challenge of picking up on deteriorating mental health and a colleague in decline was significant when we mixed and mingled in meetings and during the coffee break. Without that immediate “line of sight” during the office-based working day, the task has become a lot harder. Not all employees are going to declare their hand and ask for help if they are struggling but in such circumstances, an employer remains under a duty to heed obvious “red flags” and to take action. Traditional indicators for a particular employee might include being:

  • Known to have a history of vulnerability?
  • Unusually silent over email communications?
  • Difficult to contact during work hours?
  • Missing regular scheduled meetings?
  • Working shorter/longer hours than normal?
  • Taking uncharacteristically more sick leave than usual?
  • Struggling to meet pre-covid target/KPI?
  • Known to have childcare or other caring responsibilities?

If any of these red flags are identified, it would be advisable for the employer to be proactive and engage with the employee to provide support.

What can employers do to manage avoidable work related stress?

The challenge to the employer is to bridge the physical distance and intentional “safety barrier” of lockdown in a way that enables it to still reach out, maintain contact and support the wellbeing of its workforce. Here are some thoughts on what can and should be done:

  • Employers keep an open dialogue with employees and ensure regular contact
  • Empower colleagues with an entitlement to work flexibility, helping them to manage work and personal responsibilities in whatever imaginative ways they find most successful
  • Leverage the skills of dedicated HR professionals already within the business to enhance their existing support services and encourage employees to access that support as a regular and accepted “work benefit”
  • Absorb the pervasiveness of social media and online platforms to create informal “safe work spaces” for people to still have their regular and scheduled catch ups with colleagues/teams
  • Reassess what “realistic” work distribution/responsibilities/targets might look like and communicate any changes of expectation in a positive and supportive way

In my experience, a proactive employer who engages with its workforce has better prospects of ensuring the physical and mental wellbeing of its employees, enhances the strength of the “psychological contract” that keeps many of us turning up for work every day, and optimises productivity and economic sustainability in the process. This should in turn moderate the incidence and severity of work related stress and the resultant claims which I suspect will otherwise be triggered as an indirect consequence of these unprecedented times.

Please do get in touch should you require any further information or support on how best you as an employer can manage and minimise this risk.

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