As an employer in 2020 the issue of work related stress disorders is an extremely hot topic. With the impact of COVID-19 affecting people’s ability to work in a “normal” way or in some cases no work at all, work related stress issues are surely going to be affected in a negative way.
With so many people working from home and losing face to face contact with their colleagues and managers, how can employers really assess whether or not an employee is struggling with the current working climate.
Yes, there is the option of zoom calls and team video calls, WhatsApp group chats and numerous virtual meeting platforms but does this give you a realistic picture of someone else’s mental health and well-being in the same way that working with them in your normal environment would do?
So, we decided to get a first-hand view of how COVID-19 has affected our staff by asking them to answer a series of 10 questions. The team at SMP Healthcare were happy to provide answers in the hope that this experiment will highlight to others how mental health and wellbeing has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
Q1. When the current COVID-19 pandemic was in it’s infancy at the beginning of 2020, were you worried about what this would mean for you and your family?
Actually, I was not worried at all, in fact I can remember having a conversation in the office about it and could probably even be quoted as saying “it won’t come here, I don’t know what you are worrying about. China is a long way away you know!” How wrong could I be?
Yes, but I am quite an anxious person, so for me I found it quite difficult and my brain went into overdrive very early on as to how this could affect me and my family.
Whilst the Covid cases were contained within China I didn’t have any concerns as I really didn’t think it would spread to the UK but as soon as it did start spreading to the UK and other European countries, I started to worry. Not only was I worried about myself as I’m high risk, I was also worried about the older members in my family both in the UK and abroad. My worry was that if any of us contracted it, we would be unlikely to survive it, due to age and/or underlying medical conditions.
Q2. When the government announced in March 2020 that those who could work from home should work from home, were you pleased or disappointed?
I was really disappointed. I love getting into the office and working with colleagues in a face to face environment and have a great bunch of friends I catch the train with and have done for a number of years. The thought of working from home for even a month seemed so surreal, little did I know that that few weeks would roll into a few months.
Pleased. I love my job and my colleagues, but I am an introvert and so quite happy to work from home and with all this going on feel safer doing it this way.
Yes, I was very pleased as I knew I would feel safer at home. I wasn’t happy going to the office every day because of coming into contact with other people there, as although I was being careful, I couldn’t be sure that other staff members were also being careful.
Q3. Did you find it hard to work in your home environment and did you have to make any adjustments to accommodate this?
Work was not really an issue from home although I only had a really small computer workstation so after a couple of months went by, I gratefully received a freebie desk from a friend with a more comfortable chair too. The thing I found most difficult was taking time away from the computer screen. My travelling time was replaced by additional screen time and my eyes have really suffered. As soon as the opticians opened again I had to get a new prescription, it could be coincidence but I really don’t think it helped.
No, not at all. I have a separate area where I can work away from my family and we already have a computer at home.
No, I found it really easy working from home and apart from needing to use the company’s laptop, no adjustments had to be made.
Q4. Was a daily call from management enough for you or did you feel that there should have been more contact?
One of my colleagues set up a WhatsApp group and we all sent a “funny” good morning message to each other practically every day. Unless there were specific issues, I think one call was enough. We emailed on a regular basis anyway.
For me a daily call was fine and if I had any issues I knew I could simply call management for assistance.
For me, a daily call was more than sufficient. It was good to be able to catch up on the previous day’s events and discuss anything in the pipeline.
Q5. Did the fact that you were placed on furlough make you feel nervous about the long term stability of your job role?
Fortunately I was never on the furlough scheme and therefore this wasn’t an issue for me at the time although of course, the worry for other people was still there.
Yes, but again I am a very anxious person and this was something totally new and like a lot of people I am sure they also thought the same as no one knows how this pandemic is going to affect their jobs.
Yes, absolutely. It was a very unnerving time and not knowing what the future held jobwise was very stressful. Added to the fact that I was concerned about contracting Covid, I felt extremely anxious and felt very unsettled.
Q6. When you were on furlough, did you struggle to motivate yourself to live a “new normal” life?
Again, this didn’t apply to me, I was lucky to be working the whole way through.
A new normal life, that’s such an odd phrase, but it’s true I suppose especially for those that used to go out and socialise on a daily basis. For me, nothing much has changed, I enjoy spending time at home with my partner and little girl, but I miss seeing my family and when restrictions were in place I did find that extremely hard, but I kept telling myself, this isn’t just happening to me. We are all going through this bizarre time in life together.
I found it really difficult to get to grips with the “new normal” and on the rare occasions that I went out it was with trepidation. I knew that I had been following all the rules but was concerned that other people hadn’t been doing the same. Because of my uncertainty, I felt safer being indoors.
Q7. Did you miss going to the office and meeting with colleagues on a daily basis or were you happier in your safe, home environment?
Well I guess I didn’t miss paying the travel costs but yes, 100% I think it is much better working in the office although I also believe we have a responsibility to follow the government guidelines and work from home – because we can. Yes I know being at home was the safest place to be but I would definitely rather be in the office. My personality is not suited to long days on my own in the same four walls.
I do miss seeing my colleagues and having that face to face interaction with them, but we are well connected working from home and keep in contact with each other on a daily basis so it doesn’t affect me massively and I feel safer and happier working from home.
In all honesty, I didn’t miss going to the office. I much preferred being at home. Not only did I feel safer in my own little hub but I felt that I worked better as I wasn’t feeling so anxious. Even now, my home is my safe place.
Q8. How did you feel when you were removed from the furlough scheme and asked to work full time again?
Not applicable to me.
Relieved. I love what I do and for me personally, work is a great form of escapism, and it certainly helped take my mind off of what was happening in relation to the pandemic.
I felt relieved when this happened as it meant my job was safe. The uncertainty of my job was constantly worrying me.
Q9. What about coming back to the office, were you nervous about returning on the 10th August 2020?
Not at all. The daily figures were really calming down and again, as soon as Boris Johnson actively encouraged people to return to the workplace then I could have jumped for joy. I could not wait to get back to the office and experience a little bit of normality. It was great to see everyone on a daily basis again.
I was nervous about returning to the office, although management made the necessary adjustments for us to return, it still didn’t take away my anxiety and thoughts about potentially catching the virus or even passing it onto colleagues as a potential carrier.
I didn’t like going back to the office at all. I felt nervous and anxious, particularly as I use public transport for part of my journey. To try to minimise my nervousness, particularly with my journey, I started driving to work but car parking is very costly, so I won’t be able to do this all the time. Also being in the office where at times there could be up to 7 people there has been worrying as other people come in my public transport and could well be a carrier of the virus. And of course, I would not be aware of who they are mixing with outside of the office.
Q10. Now that you are once again working from home, has your feeling changed about doing this changed in anyway?
No, I have resigned myself to the fact that this is how it has got to be even if it is another 6 months. It doesn’t affect my work or my clients and all of the insurers are still accessible. Obviously I wish it was different but if by working from home it means we avoid a full lockdown and I can still spend time with my parents then that’s far better in my book. I really hope we are back to the office before 2021 but at this moment in time I cannot see that happening.
No as I feel I am happier and more productive working from home. I find it easier to concentrate and it has definitely had a positive impact on my mental wellbeing.
No, my feelings are the same as before. Home is my safe place and so working from home lessens my anxiety and makes me happier. I am thankful that I have a job that enables me to work from home.
So as you can see the mental health effects are totally different from person to person. Our answers are different and this is just 3 people. Imagine the magnification of asking the same questions to 100 or even 1000 employees?
Everyone will be having their own stress and anxiety issues regarding the current working climate and this doesn’t take in to account the people who are being asked to go into the office even though they could work at home. Imagine what the answers would be from employees falling in this bracket.
I know of people who are being asked to work in the office now and yet successfully worked from home from March until September – so why on earth are they expected to be happy working in the office when they could be safer working from home?
Mental Health Statistics from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)
The Health and Safety Executive published statistics in October 2019 that confirmed in 2018/19 stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 44% of all work-related ill health cases and 54% of all working days lost due to ill health. The total number of working days lost due to this condition in 2018/19 was 12.8 million days!!
12.8 million days – now that is a huge number for Great Britain to cope with; I cannot help but wonder what this figure will be for the 2020/2021 period?
Within the report it shows that females had statistically significantly higher rates of work-related stress depression and anxiety compared with the average for all persons. Would this be because women are far more likely to report or discuss mental health issues than men or is it that there are significantly higher cases in women?
*sourced from www.hse.gov.uk/statistics
Office for National Statistics (ONS) report relating to coronavirus and depression
With the above statistics from the HSE in mind, we then look and the ONS report in June and the results are fairly staggering.
To think that this was the position in June, where are we now four months down the line and no end in sight? The days are getting shorter, the weather is getting colder and the winter is looming fast. With the UK news filled with local lockdowns, mass redundancies and the closing of many high street stores then I can only presume that the next ONS report may even bring more frightening statistics about the mental health of the UK population as a whole.
Uk charity www.mind.co.uk describes the coronavirus as creating a mental health emergency and their latest report shows that new mental health problems have now developed with existing mental health issues getting worse.
- Almost one in five adults (19.2%) were likely to be experiencing some form of depression during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in June 2020; this had almost doubled from around 1 in 10 (9.7%) before the pandemic (July 2019 to March 2020).
- One in eight adults (12.9%) developed moderate to severe depressive symptoms during the pandemic, while a further 6.2% of the population continued to experience this level of depressive symptoms; around 1 in 25 adults (3.5%) saw an improvement over this period.
- Adults who were aged 16 to 39 years old, female, unable to afford an unexpected expense, or disabled were the most likely to experience some form of depression during the pandemic.
- Feeling stressed or anxious was the most common way adults experiencing some form of depression felt their well-being was being affected, with 84.9% stating this.
- Over two in five (42.2%) adults experiencing some form of depression during the pandemic said their relationships were being affected, compared with one in five (20.7%) adults with no or mild depressive symptoms.
*sourced from www.ons.gov.uk
Mental Health provision in the private health insurance sector
Having worked within the private medical insurance sector for many years, I have to say that the mental health support and back up provided by the UK Insurers during the coronavirus pandemic has been impressive.
With the lack of NHS GP appointments being available during the height of the pandemic, the online and virtual resources provided by the insurers have been invaluable to many people. This applies at both a consumer and business policy level.
Very quickly the private sector reacted and gave access to resources online and remotely, unlocking valuable support to their clients for both physical and mental health conditions. Mobile phone Apps have been created and extended to try to support people through what is turning out to be an extended period of uncertainty.
We approached The Exeter who are a health and protection specialist insurer here in the UK and who offer member assistance through a mobile app called HealthWise and they have confirmed the following data:
Looking at the data from March 2020 – September 2020 (mental health support only)
- The year-on-year average monthly usage has more than doubled
- Of the appointments during this time, 34% were for anxiety and depression related reasons and 13% related to loss/grief/bereavement
- The service was most used by members aged 51-60 (29%) and 31-40 (28%).
This data is for users of the mental health support service through HealthWise, The Exeter’s member benefits app. The mental health support services are available to members of The Exeter with health insurance and income protection policies.
I know there will be a number of people who will now want to interject and complain about the lack of access for non-urgent diagnostics and surgery for private patients during the height of the coronavirus pandemic but if I can offer reassurance that the many of the UK insurers have pledged to review any increased profits in this time period and make this right with their clients. Some offered payment breaks or payment holidays and most offered a flexible approach and reviewed clients on a case by case basis.
This was an unknown situation and unchartered waters were navigated. On the whole, I truly believe the UK health insurance providers (large and small) exceeded the expectations of clients and brokers alike.
To access support for their staff, employers and business owners do not even need to go as far as full private medical insurance policies which can be costly. Lower cost options such as health cash plans and employee assistance programmes may be a far better consideration at a time where many businesses are looking at cost reductions rather than increasing employee benefit costs. The cost of an employee assistance programme really is minimal and is available to businesses both SME and Corporate.
When you start talking about health insurance as a whole, there are a myriad of options available on both a consumer and business level. Matching what you need to have in place with what you can afford may not be easy. A specialist health insurance broker such as SMP Healthcare would be able to advise you of your best options and providing they are independent you should also have the reassurance that they do not have any bias towards any of the providers.
In conclusion I would urge businesses to take the time to ask their employees for feedback, be brave and see what effect the COVID-19 pandemic has had on each individual member of their team. By asking the questions this provides employers and business owners a real insight into the struggles that their staff are facing from a mental health perspective.
You may not want the honest answers but surely this will provide you with the best overview of their situation and give you the opportunity to implement procedures and policies to help staff before it comes to crisis point. With great staff being the most valuable asset of your business, surely their welfare becomes more important than just fulfillment of a “duty of care”.