Mental Health and the Working Environment

Mental health related absence is the most common cause of long-term sickness absence in UK workplaces. Work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 44% of employee ill health and 54% of working days lost, in 2018/19 (HSE, 2019). And that was before the pandemic.  70 million work days are lost each year due to mental health problems in the UK, costing employers approximately £2.4 billion per year.  As well as sickness absence, poor mental health at work can lead to reduced productivity, increased staff turnover and high presenteeism.

Poor mental health covers issues with anxiety, stress, low mood and depression.  Everyone’s mood fluctuates but it is described as a problem if these symptoms continue for a prolonged period of time.  Work related stress is a mental health problem, defined by the Health and Safety Executive as a reaction to excessive pressure or other type of demand placed on an individual at work. Stress can be a significant cause of illness.

How has Covid-19 affected employees’ mental health?

The pandemic has resulted in employees having to not only deal with the stress and anxiety caused by fears of the virus, but also adjust to new ways of working.  The stay-at-home rule meant that, often for the first time, people had to work from home.  The isolation and lack of social interaction will have had an effect on employees’ mental health.  Many may have worried about losing their jobs as the pandemic hit the economy and businesses hard.  Those on furlough could have suffered from mental health problems caused by lack of purpose. 

It is therefore unsurprising that there has been an increase in reported stress and anxiety.  According to the Office for National Statistics, 1 in 5 (21%) adults experienced some form of depression in early 2021; this is more than double that observed before the pandemic (10%).Those who already had mental health conditions have found their symptoms have got worse. The mental health charity Rethink found that over three-quarters of people with pre-existing mental health problems reported their symptoms had worsened. People most affected were those with an eating disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder or a personality disorder.

Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that catching the virus could lead to mental health problems.   Research from the US  found that 1 in 3 people who suffered severe COVID-19 symptoms have since developed a neurological or mental health condition.  The study showed significant neurological and psychiatric issues in the 6 months after COVID-19 infection in those who had severe COVID-19.

Different groups disproportionally affected

One study found that women have been disproportionally affected by poor mental health during the pandemic.  The strain of taking on home schooling of children as well as working has been a significant factor. 

The study also found higher incidence of stress and anxiety in younger employees and those living alone.  Living alone was associated with a 53% increase in depression.  The mental health charity Mind have found that more than half of adults (60%) and over two thirds of young people (68%) said their mental health worsened during lockdown.  Young people and those with pre-existing mental health conditions were particularly affected – and employees who had been furloughed also reported a slight decline in their wellbeing compared to others. 

What can employers do?

It is true that employees find it difficult to talk about mental health issues with their employers.  However, employers have a responsibility to look after the health, safety and welfare of their employees. This includes mental health and well-being.

Employers need to support their staff in the return to the workplace.  Some employees may need further support in the long-term.  Measures should be taken to help employees regain a work/life balance – for many working from home has blurred the lines between work life and home life, with work increasingly taking over. 

Some employees may have worries about returning to the workplace, with the extra mixing with others that this will involve.  Others may need additional support for more serious mental health issues.  It is vital that those experiencing mental health problems are not labelled, but instead supported to get well.  Employees who have a mental health condition may be classified as disabled according to the Equality Act 2010, and therefore should be protected from discrimination in the workplace.

If an employee is classed as disabled, the employer has to make ‘reasonable’ adjustments to protect them.  This may include changes to working hours, adjustments to the workplace, and changes in duties.  Employees should be encouraged to talk about their issues rather than suffering in silence.  If paid leave isn’t an option, they should be allowed to take unpaid leave or paid statutory sick pay.

However the laws are unlikely to provide enough support for employees suffering from the various mental health impacts of the pandemic.  Not all conditions will fall under the definition within the Equality Act. It is important to make adjustments and provide adequate support for employees, regardless of definition.  Employers who do this will see less absence, improvements in organisational culture, employee engagement and a reduction in staff turnover.

Modular exhibition stand contractor Quadrant2Design takes the mental health of their staff seriously, MD Alan Jenkins said “Exhibition stand contractor Quadrant2Design takes the mental health of their staff seriously. MD Alan Jenkins said, “We encourage our staff to talk about any restlessness they have, as we think it’s fundamental to understand how they feel within the company and if we can do something about it. As a business, our staff’s mental health is something very important, but also for their work productivity that could have been affected too.”

Adopting Mindfulness

The Mindful Business Charter (MBC) was launched by some of the leading banks and law firms in 2018.  Its purpose is to improve the mental health and wellbeing of employees by getting rid of unnecessary workplace stress through improved working practices. Although this was adopted by professional services, there is no reason why its themes cannot be utilised by other professions and industries.  It has various recommendations for employees:

  • Maintain connections even when physically distanced – this could be through phone calls and video conferencing in order to help the team work together and provide support.
  • Keep the team bond going – have remote coffee chats, away days or maybe after work drinks.
  • Flexibility – some may prefer phone calls to communicate, others may like email or chat, employers should discuss their preferences with staff.
  • Be mindful of colleagues – some may be juggling work and childcare and find meeting certain deadlines a challenge.
  • The importance of a work/life balance – even when working from home it is vital to switch off from work and do other activities to relax.


Mental health in the workplace has deteriorated significantly due to the pandemic.  We may be still seeing the effects in months and years to come.  Mental health problems cause absenteeism and loss of productivity.  Employers have a responsibility to take all the necessary steps to support their staff through any issues they might have.  Employers who go out of their way to do this are likely to be rewarded with reduced staff turnover, increased productivity and a better workplace culture.

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