Covid-19 recovery and employee mental health15.03.21
Chief Innovation Officer
As part of Benefex’s work within employee wellbeing, we are pleased to sponsor Engage for Success’s Covid-19 & employee mental health report from their Wellbeing Thought Action Group. To give us an insight into the report, our own Director of Employee wellbeing, Gethin Nadin, (chair of the group) provided an introduction…
A mental health pandemic
At the start of 2020, 79% of British employees said they commonly experience work-related stress. This is 20% higher than in 2018. It is estimated that 1 in 4 people will be affected by poor mental health at some point in their lives and in early 2020, poor mental health was costing employers up to £45 billion a year according to Deloitte.
Globally in 2020 our mental health was challenged like never before. Even before the pandemic, the global economy lost more than US$ 1 trillion each year due to depression and anxiety. Around the world, mental health conditions contribute to 25% of years lived with disability. Depression is now a leading cause of disability, affecting more than 264 million people. The extraordinary increase in mental health we saw this year put huge pressure on already underfunded and stretched mental health services in almost every
While it was difficult to predict a widespread virus was coming and how we would react to it in countries that hadn’t had one before, with the knowledge we gained in 2020, we can make some confident predictions about mental health in 2021 that can help employers to make quick and decisive action to support their people.
Evidence is emerging
One of the primary reasons experts were so quick to warn of the impact of lockdowns and isolation on our mental health was that previous pandemics had given us the evidence of what might happen. The global outbreak of SARS in 2003 was linked to an increase of 30% in suicides for those over the age of 65. The psychological impact of quarantine and
isolation caused symptoms like post-traumatic stress, depression and loneliness.
Historically we know that the mental health impact of things like disasters take longer to recover from than the disaster itself. Twenty-five years after the Chernobyl nuclear accident, researchers found that levels of post-traumatic stress and depression were significantly higher. When we think about Coronavirus and the impact it has had on employees, we must understand that it is wide scale trauma that we have all been through and it will affect some employees in much the same way as devastating accidents and natural disasters.
The third lockdown in the UK was a significant part of the unprecedented mental health crisis brought on by the pandemic. The state of the nation’s health is now so bad we are formally in a mental health pandemic too. From mild to serious mental health problems, employees of all ages, from all backgrounds and working in all industries have been profoundly affected by more than a year of stress, anxiety and worry brought on by the pandemic. The mental health of children has been of a particular worry as almost 20% of those aged between 5 and 16 years say they are experiencing a probable mental illness.
Evidence is emerging to show specifically how the pandemic has affected people’s mental health going forwards. It’s been shown to increase the risk of obsessive compulsive disorders in young people for example. One of the UK’s leading charities, The Prince’s Trust says their annual survey of young people’s happiness has produced the worst results in its 12 year history. The devastating impact the pandemic has had on young people in the UK means that 1 in 4 now say they feel they are “unable to cope”. Around half of the young people surveyed cited political unrest, Brexit and the pandemic as all affecting their mental health. More than half of 16 to 25 year olds say they feel anxious ‘always’ or ‘often’. Increases in alcoholism and substance abuse have started to emerge too. But most alarmingly, it's estimated that 1 in every 17 people who caught the virus could not be diagnosed with anxiety, depression or insomnia for the very first time, and 1 in 5 survivors of the virus will be diagnosed with anxiety, depression or PTSD. In fact, just catching the virus is likely to double the risk of developing a new mental illness.
Recessions hurt our health
The 2008 global financial crisis hit all major economies and led to the deepest UK recession n 50 years. Prior to that recession, UK suicide rates had been declining, but reversed around the time we entered a recession in 2008. Similar rises were seen in countries throughout Europe and in the US. Unemployment, poor financial wellbeing and debt all increase someone’s risk of depression and suicide – particularly in young men. But we also have evidence that wage cuts and reduced hours can contribute to suicidal behaviour.
Following the 2008 recession, we know that mental health in and outpatient visits in the years that followed increased among all types of employees. The negative impact of a recession even extended to the mental health of those individuals and groups typically considered low risk. What we also know is that declines in mental health following the last recession were still evident for several years after the end of the recession. Based on our expected economic recovery in the UK, the mental health impact of Coronavirus will be with us until 2025 at least.
The vaccine is just the beginning
While a vaccine might remove the physical risk of Coronavirus, unfortunately the psychological impact it is having on your people is already taking place and is a wave that we are unable to stop. The only thing employers can do is to plan how they are going to support their people over the next 5 years and beyond.
At the time of writing this special report, the UK Government has announced a major reform of the Mental Health Act in a bid to empower patients and tackle racial disparities. A package of reforms has been set out in a wideranging new Reforming the Mental Health Act white paper, which builds on the recommendations made by Sir Simon Wessely’s Independent Review of the Mental Health Act in 2018. Most notably, the reform will seek to improve access to mental health support.
The expert view
I’ve spent the last year helping large global businesses with their approaches to workplace wellbeing and it is clear that one of the biggest challenges is creating a wellbeing strategy that will support a business in the short and long term. When the pandemic hit, most employers needed to react quickly to support their people. Employers introduced new technologies to help the mental health of their people and many organisations offered free tools and support. But as we enter the second year of the pandemic, we should be thinking about how we can support employees in the long term. We are no longer reacting to a quick change in circumstances, so more robust, evidence-based initiatives are needed if we are going to offer real support. Having a formal strategy helps employers to do a number of things; it helps you to audit the support you currently offer; it identifies areas that need attention and it helps everyone in your business understand your approach and mission when it comes to employee wellbeing. To support employers in creating effective wellbeing strategies as we enter this period of recovery, I have asked the Engage for Success Wellbeing TAG experts to share their advice for employers in 2021.
If you'd like to hear more from Engage for Success or read the full report, you can download it here.
Gethin is an award-winning psychologist who has been helping some of the world’s largest organisations to improve their employee experience and wellbeing for more than two decades. The last 11 years have been spent working as part of the senior leadership team at Benefex where Gethin leads thought leadership as Chief Innovation Officer.
As a frequent writer and speaker on employee experience and employee wellbeing, Gethin has been featured in Forbes, The Guardian, The Sun, The Huffington Post and The Financial Times as well as all major HR, Reward and Pensions publications. Gethin has been listed as one of the world’s top 101 Global Employee Experience Influencers for the last two years running, is listed on the Employee Engagement Powerlist, is one of LinkedIn’s top global contributors and an Inspiring Leader 2021. Gethin is also a regular keynote speaker, ex-Chair of Wellbeing at the UK Government-backed Engage for Success and a Fellow at the RSA.
In 2018, Gethin published his first book - the HR bestseller ‘A World of Good: Lessons From Around the World in Improving the Employee Experience’, which has gone on to inspire HR and Reward teams at some of the world’s best known brands. In early 2022, Gethin co-authored his second book ‘Das Menschliche Büro - The Human(e) Office’ a collaboration between leading academics and workplace professionals from across Europe. In October 2022, Gethin published his “third” book ‘A Work In Progress: Unlocking Wellbeing to Create More Sustainable and Resilient Organisations’ which also became an immediate bestseller.