Mental health support during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic

Author: Sarah Byrne

Regular communications, mental health first-aiders, employee assistance programmes and online resources all have an important part to play in employers' efforts to support their employees' mental health during the current crisis.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has highlighted the important need to support employees with their mental health. Many will be feeling anxious about their physical health and that of their families, their job security and potential loss of income, and, if working from home or on furlough, they may be experiencing feelings of isolation. For those juggling work with childcare commitments and home-schooling, the added pressure can feel overwhelming.

Line managers have a key role to play. But the fact that managers may be at a distance from their teams can make it more difficult to identify whether or not an employee is struggling. Despite this, the employer still has a duty of care and it is vital that support is maintained wherever parties are located.

Communication is key

Dr Barbara Mariposa (Dr B), a medical doctor with a background in psychiatry and public health, says that effective communication is crucial to meeting the challenge. She highlights the importance of keeping in regular contact with team members: "The greatest protective factor for our mental and emotional wellbeing is a sense of connectedness, that we matter, that others care about us. For many people their sense of identity is derived from the working environment."

She continues: "Even if someone has been furloughed, they can still be included. Being laid off or furloughed can disrupt the vital sense of belonging and lead us to ask 'where do I belong now?'. At a very basic, unconscious level we feel kicked out of the tribe. Employers need to do what they can to minimise this 'rejection'."

Harriet Walsh, happiness and wellbeing manager at London-based recruitment firm Wiser, agrees: "The lack of contact can be a factor if not handled properly from the get-go. People who are feeling down are less likely to respond to suggestions of wellness activities. This is why consistent team check-ins are very important here - as a line manager is more likely to notice if a team member is seeming a little 'off'." At Wiser, line managers are ensuring that they have more one-to-ones and regular team meetings. Walsh adds: "They [line managers] are also being used to trickle down any updates before they are announced company-wide and are reminded to inform the people team if anyone is struggling."

Hold regular team meetings

Face-to-face meetings via video can help to restore a sense of connection with other team members, whether on an individual basis, or as part of a larger team discussion. Scheduling these as regular events on the calendar can help to create a new sense of routine. Some of these online meetings may be entirely work-related but it's also good to initiate optional informal group chats. A number of organisations have introduced online meetings outside work hours - for example, virtual pub get-togethers in which team members can chat to each other with a glass in hand from their respective homes. Even work-related meetings can contain a fun element that may help to boost morale. For example, some managers have asked team members to join a video call wearing their favourite hat or sitting next to a pet - although this will clearly not be appropriate for all meetings, and managers need to be aware that such an approach may make some employees uncomfortable and adapt appropriately.

Dr B says that line managers need to "allow staff time to simply connect, support each other and encourage activities that are not about goals, targets, performance… and this includes sharing experiences of what life is currently like, whether working from home or still at a business premises". Regular catch-up phone calls are equally important and for employees who do not feel comfortable using a video link, they provide a vital means of contact. Daily or weekly company or team email updates are another way to keep employees in the loop. For example, Wiser is sending out weekly "booklets" to employees containing information on how they can take care of themselves. Themes so far have included: maintaining a positive mindset, financial mental health and the importance of routines.

Social media platforms can be invaluable for keeping in touch. As well as daily check-ins with staff, Wiser is using Google Hangouts, WhatsApp and Slack to stay connected. Using Google Hangouts, the company runs a number of optional wellbeing activities every day, including yoga, mindfulness, meditation and breathing exercises. It also offers "happy hours" sessions, where people can log in for a chat with the "happiness team".

Provide a sympathetic ear

Line managers may encourage team members to contact mental health first-aiders within their organisation (if it has them). Mental health first-aiders can provide support to employees who are experiencing a mental health issue or emotional distress through an informal but confidential chat. They can also assist if further support is needed from within the organisation, and point employees in the right direction if they are seeking external professional support, for example via counselling. Where available, managers can also direct staff towards employee assistance programmes, where they can speak to an independent adviser on a confidential basis about concerns that are causing anxiety. Offering an alternative to mental health first-aiders, buddy schemes are an effective way of helping to boost employee wellbeing. Pairing employees with colleagues who can provide additional support on mental health and wellbeing matters or simply offer an ear to listen, again on a confidential basis, can be hugely beneficial. With a buddy there is mutual support and care. Dr B says: "The act of caring for another has its own protective benefits. Set up buddy schemes and you are also building more team cohesion, which is so important at this time."

Access external sources of support

There are many online resources available for employers to tap into and find ways of supporting their employees. For example, retailTRUST, the charity that helps people in retail and its supporting service industries, offers practical information via a wellbeing website. Director of wellbeing and funding, Neil Duffy, says: "With so many people having to come to terms with new ways of working, combined with the challenges that restrictions on travel and social engagement present, access to reliable information and support at their fingertips has never been so important."

He continues: "Our wellbeing site gives users access to a reliable and evidence-based suite of content designed to develop their knowledge, identify potential treatment routes and access structured self-help interventions. Once registered, users can also create a personalised toolkit focused on the wellbeing topics of interest to them. Their choices can be updated at any time as their needs evolve."

Another helpful online wellbeing programme has been developed by Samaritans, The Lord Mayor's Appeal and PwC. Wellbeing in the Workplace is an online learning programme that brings Samaritans' listening and wellbeing expertise into the workplace. It teaches employees the skills to manage their own emotional health and support those around them, before feelings reach a crisis point.

Show compassion

Managers need to feel that they can make time to debrief at the end of each day, in order to check in on their team members and to look out for signs that someone is feeling vulnerable or coping less well. Dr B says: "People need time to process and adjust. Many people are deeply questioning what really matters in life. Most are realising that relationships, kindness, compassion and care are more important than to-do lists."