Research shows many businesses, including those in financial services, must prepare themselves to support growing numbers of employees with mental health problems, which may have begun or worsened because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although attitudes to mental health conditions have improved in recent years and there is growing willingness from employers to provide support, many firms may find that there are increased demands for help and understanding from their workforces.
A rising tide
According to research from the Institute of Financial Services, mental health in the UK has deteriorated ‘substantially’ because of the pandemic. Xiaowei Xu, senior research economist at IFS and an author of the paper, said:
“Young adults and women, already at more risk of mental health problems, have experienced particularly big impacts on their mental health.
“These impacts need to be weighed alongside economic and other health effects of policies as we move out of lockdown. It will be important to monitor changes in mental health and to make sure that appropriate support is given to those who are struggling.”
Meanwhile a law firm has analysed Health & Safety Executive figures and said that stress-related absences are poised to rise as the UK economy seeks to reboot and that financial services staff are feeling ‘more stressed’ than during the 2008 financial crisis.
Fox & Partners said pressures stemmed from increasingly heavy workloads, working with ‘challenging’ people and the ‘always on’ culture that has materialised through soaring use of video conferencing and other technology. It recommended firms develop wellbeing action plans, encourage staff to switch off when work is over and ensure there is plenty of communication about support which is available. Further, mental health issues must be ‘destigmatised’ from board level downwards and mental health first aiders can also be beneficial.
A number of larger financial services firms have announced they will be supporting their employees. This includes Nationwide Building Society, which has built an online tool to help employees with mental health problems. Known as ‘Kinda’, the online tool provides wellbeing support for the firm’s 18,000 employees, helping them understand, track and improve their condition and offering tailored content.
Meanwhile, Lloyds Bank has a partnership with Mental Health UK and its employees have access to a tool called ‘Your Resilience’, which some 8,000 have already registered for. This has been expanded to include COVID-19 support, including articles, podcasts and webinars. There is also direct assistance from some 800 internal mental health advocates, who provide weekly support sessions.
For many, the months ahead may be particularly difficulty. Although many continue to work from home, the gradual easing of the lockdown, means that there will be phased returns to more office-based work. This in itself can raise anxiety levels with employees now increasingly accustomed to home working and who may find it hard to reconnect directly with colleagues.
Already, there is talk of rising ‘returner anxiety’ which is a term being used to describe fear of being exposed to COVID-19 in the workplace or while commuting.
For those in senior and management roles, making sure that employees are willing to return to more normal working conditions and understanding how offices have been made safe is important.
They should also be aware that this is a regulatory duty. At the start of the pandemic, the FCA also reminded firms that they had to take responsibility to ensure the health of their employees and on May 21, firms were told in an email that senior managers would be held responsible for the health of employees mental wellbeing. The FCA stressed that employee psychological safety was vital to maintaining a healthy culture at financial businesses.
It is reassuring to know that cases of the virus are reducing and there is increasing focus on the UK being able to boost economic productivity. But, the country remains in a damaged and vulnerable condition - addressing the need to treat mental health conditions must be a priority to ensure recovery in its fullest sense.
If risk managers learn one lesson from COVID-19, it’s that business resiliency needs to be top of mind if their organisations are to withstand the pressure of events to come. Take a look at the new Recovery@Riskonnect resource hub which offers tools to help you rebuild in the wake of the pandemic and prepare for the future: