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COVID-19: the workplace wellbeing impact

May 9, 2022

As Mental Health Week 2022 commences, Joanne Reilly, Vice President of Human Resources, looks at the impact of COVID-19 on workplace wellbeing.

While the advantages of COVID-19 are few and far between, there can be no denying the sweeping changes the pandemic has ushered into workplaces around the world.

From the improved implementation of remote working to a better understanding of the importance of the work-life balance, the upheaval caused by coronavirus has sped up much-needed transformation in the way many of us work.

It has also had a seismic impact on bringing mental health challenges, and the need to support them at work, to the fore. The pandemic has radically upgraded this provision to a tangible business requirement.

Accompanying this has been a greater understanding of the workplace factors that contribute to poor mental health, the pressing need to address the stigma surrounding it, and the importance of recognizing the link to diversity, equality, and inclusion.

Mental health affects us all and, like our physical health, it fluctuates along a spectrum.

Research shows one in five employees in the USA manages a diagnosable condition, with 60% of those surveyed in 2019 reporting symptoms of a mental health condition at some point during that year.

Meanwhile, in the UK, mental health-related absence is the most common cause of long-term sickness and is responsible for the loss of a staggering 70 million workdays annually.

In Canada, the impact of the pandemic has been notable too, with figures from Statistics Canada revealing one in four Canadians screened positive for symptoms of depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 2021, up from one in five in 2020.

A worrying picture is also emerging in India. Even before the pandemic, the country was struggling with a mental health crisis and dealing with the highest suicide rate in the world.

In 2017, over 197 million people in India had a diagnosed mental disorder out of a population of 1.3 billion. This included 45.7 million people with depressive disorders and 44.9 million with anxiety disorders, according to a study published in the Lancet.

Now, mental health experts in India are reporting that the pandemic has exacerbated the situation. There are growing concerns that the country’s health provision is not adequately equipped to cope with a widespread mental health crisis.

Figures from Deloitte show poor mental health costs companies huge amounts of money and have estimated outgoings of £45 billion annually in the UK alone.

Financial costs aside, it is also responsible for increased staff turnover, reduced engagement, and high presenteeism.

As employers, we have a duty of care to ensure our workplaces actively promote wellbeing, rather than triggering or exacerbating conditions. However, in many countries, the legal requirements for this are minimal and, for some employees, not sufficient to support their specific wellbeing needs.

At G&L, we believe mental health is worth investing in.

Deloitte’s ‘Mental health and employers: the case for refreshing investment’ report reveals that, for every £1 spent by employers on mental health interventions, they get £5 back in reduced absences and staff turnover.

What’s more, this figure is probably highly conservative: it doesn’t take into account the much-overlooked impact on the wider workforce, or the impact on staff morale and workloads.

It also makes no provision for the wider benefits to society, such as lower social welfare costs and reduced pressures on healthcare providers.

With this in mind, we all must see mental health as a collective priority rather than an individual challenge.

For this to happen, there is a real need for a culture change where everyone has a role to play in making mental health an organizational priority, with accountability mechanisms such as regular pulse surveys and clear ownership beyond the HR department.

At the heart of this is training for all employees on how to have those difficult conversations on how to create an atmosphere of trust and safety for all. Mental health policies, practices, culturally competent benefits, and other resources must be put in place and communicated thoroughly.

Society has changed dramatically in the last two years and employee expectations have increased. Now is the time for workplaces to move away from the status quo and embrace change for the better for all.

Related: Wellbeing – a workplace priority

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