Director, Employee Wellbeing Benefex
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The psychological pandemic: an opportunity for employers to aid recovery

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Covid-19 has created an unprecedented mental health crisis and employers must act now to help employees – and society as a whole – get a handle on this.

18th Jan 2021
Director, Employee Wellbeing Benefex
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This pandemic has afflicted our society with poor mental health. Most employers were so unprepared for the immediate mental health impact of the pandemic that if felt like we spent most of the spring and summer finding the fire extinguisher and reading the instructions. As we head in 2021, we have the benefit of knowing our employee’s mental health will worsen and need more support in 2021 than perhaps at any time in living memory.

We cannot waste the challenges that the pandemic threw at us to create workplaces that better support employee mental health. 

A great deal of my year has been spent helping employers to better support the now wide-ranging, and far-reaching mental health problems their people are facing. Even if we could immediately vaccinate everyone tomorrow, the long-term damage has been done and employers need to think carefully about how they are going to increase mental health support quickly. We are now in the throes of a psychological pandemic in almost every country in the world.

Pre-pandemic health

In 2019 employees reported feeling the most stressed at work than they had been for two years. Nearly 80% of employees rated their stress levels at seven or above out of ten. In addition to this, for years, money worries have plagued the workforce causing sleepless nights and increased stress. Before the pandemic hit, employee wellbeing was a growing concern. While it feels like a vaccination against Covid-19 might be the end of one risk, it most certainly is just the beginning of a new one.

Uncertainty, anxiety and threat have affected our bodies this year and the physical threat has activated an almost continued biological stress response.  Many experts agree that the impact this pandemic has had on our bodies may be so significant that it has fundamentally changed us. Long lasting changes in behaviour, loneliness and the emotional impact of losing regular physical touch with other people have led many of us to create compensatory behaviours that could harm our wellbeing for much longer. The ripple effects of the pandemic have led people to increase their use of drugs and alcohol. There has been a 34% increase in prescriptions for habit-forming medication like Xanax and substance abuse deaths have increased by a third.

wellbeing hub link

An echo pandemic

The pandemic has had a profound effect on the wellbeing of almost every single employee. In fact, 70% of employees say this has been the most stressful time of their careers. In November 2020, 20% of UK adults said they had experienced some form of depression or anxiety. These figures have remained pretty consistent throughout the pandemic but are double pre-pandemic rates. Almost half of UK adults say their wellbeing was affected by the pandemic, rising to 81% for those already living with some form of depression or anxiety. This has all created an echo pandemic with mental health issues being a key concern in the next wave of Covid-19.

Throughout the pandemic, it has been estimated that nearly half of all families have been forced into debt. Almost 18 million people say they’ve used credit cards, overdrafts and other borrowing since March 2020. The economic hardship faced by so many people has pushed financial resilience even lower and will take years to recover. The mental health impact of these kinds of money worries and long documented and will contribute significantly to poorer mental health over the next five years.

There has also been a 30% increase in children making mental health related visits to emergency departments this year, meaning some of the newest entrants to the workforce over the next few years might need additional support. The problem persists for young people of working age too, as anxiety levels in those under 29 years of age are up almost 25%. Decades of evidence suggest this impact is not going to be short-term and that employers must make immediate and significant interventions. So significant is the impact expected to be on younger people, the UK’s human rights watchdog has asked the government to prioritise the mental health of young people to protect them from the ‘devastating’ economic and emotional wellbeing impact of the pandemic.

As well as the obvious long-term impact on employee mental health, the government is also starting to look into the hidden aspects of this crisis. Our over reliance on technology during the pandemic is concerning the UK government so much that the House of Lords Covid-19 Committee is holding an initial inquiry into the impact this tech reliance might have had on people’s wellbeing. The risk is much higher for those who caught the virus

Towards the end of 2020, alarming research started to emerge that suggests catching Covid-19 doubles a person’s risk of developing a new psychiatric illness. A detailed analysis of 62,000 Covid-19 patients’ historical medical records and subsequent psychiatric diagnoses found that those who survived the virus reported double the likelihood of developing things like PTSD, anxiety, adjustment disorder etc than those who hadn’t caught the virus.

While the researchers don’t yet know why this is, they believe it’s likely to be a specific biological factor relating to how the virus affects the central nervous system. At the time of writing, the UK has had 1.25 million survivors of Covid-19.

For those who were put in intensive care with the virus, 20-30% of them will go on to develop PTSD. We know from other viral outbreaks that even ten years after an event like Covid-19, people can still be treated for PTSD.

Taking a careful look at wellbeing

While many employers do at least one thing to support the wellbeing of their people, the time has come for all of us to take a more considered and evidence-based approach to the support we offer. For those employers who took a tick box attitude to employee mental health, their people have suffered more according to research. Almost half of employees say they felt their employer didn’t offer the benefits or programmes they needed to support their wellbeing during the pandemic. Indeed, 70% now say they realise benefits like massages are just a ‘gimmick’ and didn’t offer them the support they really needed.

Some benefits appear to get more attention than others. Benefits like mindfulness have been everywhere during the pandemic, but they too are also coming under increased scrutiny by employees and experts. A paper authored by 15 psychiatrists, psychologists and mindfulness experts set out the problems they see with the mindfulness industry. They feel there are far too many organisations pushing forwards with mindfulness-based treatments before the research has outlined how impactful it really is. While there is also evidence of the benefits of mindfulness, the authors of the paper highlight that misinformation and poor methodology are still rife.

Conversely, some benefits historically haven’t had the attention they deserve. In my experience, for years employee assistance programmes have been turning into a race to the bottom. Many employers would find the cheapest offering per head and offer no (or minimal) face-to-face counselling. Since the pandemic started, I’ve seen many employers revaluate this overlooked benefit. Widening services globally, expanding features/services and re-advertising EAPs as a proactive wellbeing initiative have been commonplace.

While not a silver bullet for mental health, EAPs have been valuable to the significant increase in those that have used them this year. Unum report a 400% increase in access to their [email protected] app during lockdown.

A lesson for employers (like with any approach to wellbeing) is to really kick the tyres of what works and read the evidence. Getting investment in wellbeing over the next few years will be challenging for employers, so ensuring spend is made carefully on initiatives that will have a clear positive impact will be very important. Ask to see unbiased evidence of take up and engagement before making a commitment.

A cultural shift towards wellbeing

There is a positive message here though. More than three quarters of UK employers say the pandemic has made them change their approach to employee wellbeing. This huge acceleration in attention being paid to employee wellbeing has meant now, more than ever, employers understand the critical role they can play in proactive mental health.

We cannot waste the challenges that the pandemic threw at us to create workplaces that better support employee mental health. I’ve seen HR team of 1,000 employee organisations make phone calls to every single employee to make sure they feel cared for. I’ve seen employers give employees large sums of money to support their wellbeing, add additional benefits, more time off, communicate more and care generally more.

While the pandemic has created so much uncertainty and fear, for some employers it’s given them the impetuous to make large-scale commitments to employee mental health. I have never been so positive about the potential employers have to make life better for their people.

Interested in this topic? Read Mental health awareness: why wellbeing is a business critical issue.

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