Mental health in the UK has been declining immeasurably. A dark, gloomy and seemingly everlasting January was extraordinarily tough for many; uncertainty has become a way of life. As we ease out of lockdown a fantastic opportunity presents itself to forge and create new workplaces, structure of the working day and cultures. The planning needs to start now- before we simply ‘go back’ out of habit.

Every employer has a duty to ensure a safe workplace. Employer’s must protect the health and safety and welfare of all employees. 2020 saw a majority of employees working from home as a necessity. The urgency of the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in emergency measures with little notice to transfer the workplace to home. Instances of basic equipment (e.g. chair, desk, table) being unavailable together – the impact on mental health is slowly unravelling but without doubt is substantial.

The Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 states ‘it shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the Health and Safety and welfare at work of all the employees’.

Employers with 5 employees or more MUST have written health and safety policies. It is both a legal requirement and the cornerstone to health and safety within the workplace. By improving conditions employers can manage mental health at work.

Every person’s lockdown landscape varies from working alongside children requiring home-schooling (effectively two roles carried out at once by single parent families) to individuals living alone becoming isolated. The culture of ‘person to person’ interaction of a physical workplace has been removed for months at a time. Without doubt, the deterioration of mental health nationally in addition to the physical deaths is another significant symptom of Covid19.

As lockdown eases, decisions will need to be managed in consultation with staff as employees’ lifestyles will be a challenge.

Some people have now experienced more of a work-life balance (rather than working long days in the office 5 days a week). Others may have found they work longer hours from home and find ‘switching off’ hard. Employers will need to manage expectations and consider alternative work patterns and consult extensively with staff. Others require set hours and a structured working day to embrace the office environment. They enjoy the benefit of social aspects and sense of inclusion.

Compared to the protection of physical health (requiring risk assessments for potential physical health issues) mental health has continuously had less support but remains a very real issue that can be detrimental to both the workplace and productivity.

Notably, stress is commonly linked to the workplace. Mental health support can be offered by way of enforcing rest breaks. Some instances in lockdown saw zoom meetings run all morning and/or afternoon. This gave people no opportunity for comfort breaks or opportunity to eat. There are no strict guidelines outlining what acting ‘reasonably’ entails, unlike physical health and safety guidelines that give clear direction for  Risk Assessments i.e sufficient ventilation, prevention from falling etc.

Mental Health not only affects issues at work, the workplace can exacerbate them.

Certain workplaces aren’t ‘legally’ linked to increased mental health issues (unlike construction, which is identified as dangerous to physical health). However, some employees claim high rates of anxiety, stress and depression is due to their workplace stress.

Stress is a reaction to events or experiences in a combination of someone’s home or workplace or both. During the pandemic, the lack of distinct separation between home and work environment was a challenge for many. Those living alone who depend upon their work environment to interact with others struggled significantly. Unfortunately, without physical interaction those who would have been identified as struggling by simple observance went unnoticed. Others found pressures to perform on a screen/camera caused stress and that sustained exposure to technology impacted sleep and well-being.

There remains a significant stigma around mental health.

For so many the vulnerability they fear for admitting to struggling is substantial. The perception that those talking about mental health are exaggerating or looking for attention is saddening and misguided. Rather than seeing admission of struggling as a mistruth perhaps consider  that the greater occasions of mistruth is those who are actually struggling all too often saying they are ok.

Some mental health problems can have a single cause outside work, e.g. bereavement, divorce, medical condition or family history. Employers can manage and prevent stress by supporting the employee and/or improving work conditions. If an employee’s condition substantially affects their day to day life lasting a year (or likely to last longer), the employer may have a duty to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2020. Failure to do so can result in a claim of significant compensation.

As mental health first aiders become more commonplace in the work place, the old days of tick box HR will hopefully become a thing of the past.

The importance of promoting and inclusive culture with the workforce with a enthesis on empathy and compassion for coworkers. By starting to introduce preventative learning on subjects such as Positive Psychology, Growth Mindset and Mindfulness in would start to help employees with anxiety, stress and depression.

A Health and Safety Policy is how an organisation handles all health and safety issues. The Policy must include a Policy Statement (sometimes known as ‘Statement of Intent’). This is an organisation’s overall philosophy setting out aims and goals. The effectiveness of the Policy depends upon the involvement and commitment of staff.

A provision of the Health and Safety at Work Act is to provide ongoing training to ensure that employees at all levels are: –
  • Competent to carry out their duties, from operating specialist tools, plant and work equipment to providing support for mental health challenges.
  • Aware of their own personal Health and Safety responsibilities.

Decisions relating to on-going training of employees should receive regular review. Those with everyday responsibilities for health and safety must identify and implement health and safety training needs, with records kept on employees’ individual .

Employers facing the new challenge of the normal working week could be a thing of the past. Companies now have to adapt their HR strategies accordingly. Introducing new ways of flexible working to accommodate their employees and in return keeping productivity and performance levels at an optimum. To attract new and offer the current workforce a work life balance that suits all involved.

Article by

Natasha Jones

WorkPlace Wellbeing Ambassador for It’s Mental

Author of the book ‘Mandemic’