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How businesses are responding to the Covid-19 mental health crisis

·4-min read
A stressed man with a door and books
A stressed man with a door and books

Talking to work colleagues is the last thing many overworked employees would want to do on Christmas Day. But one senior manager at Aviva, home alone after separating from his partner, did just that last month by setting up a chat on the insurer’s internal messaging system, Yammer, and inviting colleagues to talk.

Many employers have grappled to put in place formal support for workers struggling with the stress or loneliness caused by repeated coronavirus lockdowns. But Danny Harmer, Aviva’s chief people officer, says “giving people the space to be human and support each other” is just as important.

Almost two in three workers at small and medium-sized enterprises feel their mental health has suffered as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to new research by Purbeck Insurance Services.

The survey found that 66pc of women and 62pc of men have battled with poor sleep, stress and anxiety or feelings of isolation, depression or anger.

The findings back up a wider report by Aviva last month which showed 58pc of employees had neglected their physical wellbeing since the Covid-19 outbreak due to work pressures. Almost as many, 55pc, had failed to look after their own mental wellbeing.

People are struggling to switch off from work, the study found, particularly younger employees who reported feeling an increased obligation to check emails outside working hours.

The pressures of home working affect people differently depending on their circumstances. While some staff may be living on their own and in need of social interaction, working parents often feel that they are so stretched they are neither doing a good job at work nor being a good parent, says Harmer.

That insecurity has been “dialled up to a ridiculous degree” during the pandemic and with homeschooling, she says.

A growing number of large employers now offer employees access to wellness apps such as Unmind, which offers self-guided courses for staff on how to look after their health and exercises to help with mindfulness, meditation or even sleep.

The app is available to staff at accountant KPMG, bookmaker William Hill, department store John Lewis and bankers at TSB and is often backed up by more formal assistance such as confidential helplines and online resources.

Zurich Insurance is offering employees two weeks of extra paid leave if they are parents facing a childcare emergency due to the closure of schools. Law firm Linklaters offers paid leave, emergency accommodation and support for staff suffering domestic abuse.

At the start of the pandemic, many company bosses were concerned that employees left unsupervised in their living rooms would shirk their normal duties but Aviva’s Embracing the Age of Ambiguity report suggests that staff feel under even more pressure to deliver.

The proportion of employees taking no days off due to sickness over a three-month period jumped from 67pc before the pandemic to 84pc afterwards, while more than a third of respondents said they had carried on working even when they were unwell.

Mental health support
Mental health support

The stresses of working from home have affected not only junior staff having to cope with working from small flats or unsuitable workspaces. Bosses have also faced huge demands on their time during a period when companies are battling tough economic conditions.

M&G, the FTSE 100 fund manager, announced this week that Mike Evans, its chairman, is taking a temporary absence from the firm due to a stress-related illness.

Philip Jansen, chief executive of BT, warned this week of the “very stark” effect of the pandemic on employees’ mental health and that people were fatigued by long-running restrictions on their movement

Jansen said that he has broken from his routine earlier in the pandemic when he took back-to-back video calls “all day, every day”.

He also told staff to halt the rise of endless video calls which are “really tiring for everybody”.

Many firms reported a spike in productivity in the early days of lockdown, says Poppy Jaman, chief executive of the City Mental Health Alliance, whose members include the Bank of England, Lloyds Banking Group and Wells Fargo

“Everybody was all hands on deck... People weren't necessarily taking lunch breaks,” she says.

“What we're now hearing is that energy has dipped a bit post-Christmas and I think people's resilience is being worn down a bit because actually you can't operate at that level for long, sustainable periods.”

Firms are now trying to make sure remote working is tolerable for people in the long run, says Jaman. The introduction by several professional firms of official recording of time spent homeschooling or caring for dependants validates people’s personal obligations

Some employers are enforcing a fixed lunch hour when people can leave their desks or banning video calls and meetings at specific times, she adds.

Even isolated staff suffering from loneliness need an opportunity to escape from their colleagues’ Zoom calls.

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