Evidence has emerged that even the earliest stage of the Covid-19 crisis has had a sizeable impact on the UK’s mental wellbeing.

A poll conducted on 17 and 18 March by the Mental Health Foundation [1] found that 30% of people had felt afraid at that time because of the burgeoning pandemic, while more than a fifth (22%) had experienced outright panic and almost the same proportion (18%) had felt hopeless. Meanwhile, more than three fifths (62%) had suffered anxiety.

The Foundation published its findings on 26 March, during the UK’s first week on lockdown. According to The Guardian, [2] the charity will now work with several academic institutions to re-run the poll every month, in order to develop a rolling database on the UK population’s mental health as the crisis goes on.

In a statement, the Foundation’s director of research Dr Antonis Kousoulis said: “This poll was carried out before full lockdown was introduced. Even then, there were clear indications that the pandemic was beginning to have a significant impact on the nation’s mental health.

“The concern is that the longer these levels of mental health problems continue, the worse they become for many people. Among the issues we will need to monitor are impacts on levels of trauma, suicidal thoughts and mental health vulnerability. That is why it is incredibly important that we act now.”

Separately, Kousoulis told The Guardian: “The mental health impact of the pandemic is going to last longer than the physical health impact.”

Just two days after the Foundation’s findings emerged, a BBC News story [3] indicated that some employees in keyworker professions are struggling with the emotional effects of social distancing, with 60-year-old Manchester pharmacist Asit Raja telling the site: “I was working in a pharmacy yesterday and a member of staff broke down. Same happened last week, I was working in a pharmacy, I had to make a member of staff a cup of tea because they’d broken down. They just cannot cope.”

Whether staff are working at home or at premises, what can employers do to look after their workers’ mental health at this challenging time?

The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Based on what I’ve seen during our joint campaigning with Mind and Business in the Community, it’s undoubtedly the case that there’s a much greater public awareness of mental health – and a lessening of the taboo around talking about it at work. But there’s still a sense that we need experts, somehow, to deal with it. And certainly, some of the issues that the Foundation has flagged up would benefit from that level of input.”

However, Cooper notes: “What leaders can do for teams that are now mainly virtual is to keep in touch. Keep talking to people and try to identify whether someone is behaving in ways that are unusual for them, even in this dramatically altered context. Have daily check-ins with staff – not just in groups, but individually, too. Realise that productivity is going to be affected, and that your employees’ working days are bound to be very different if they happen to be sharing a workspace with other home-working partners, or if there are children around. Or both. Leaders require a huge amount of understanding to appreciate that their staff may not be able to maintain regular, regimented, office-style schedules.”

She adds: “The best thing that any leader can do to support a worker’s mental health – whatever circumstances they are working in – is to listen to them. Ask them how they are doing, and be attentive to their response. Make it known that people can reach out to you if they need to and tell you they’re finding it hard to cope – and that if they do so, they won’t incur a snap value judgment from either yourself or the wider organisation.”

For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on the healthy workplace

Source refs: [1] [2] [3]