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How to provide support to employees who are anxious about a COVID-19 second wave.

By Paul Hinckley, Occupational Health Nurse Advisor at Staywell Occupational Health – October 2020

We have all been on a challenging and difficult journey so far in 2020, we may have come to terms with the immediate urgency that coronavirus has brought, but now what? The threat of COVID-19 remains with us, and whilst research into ways of identifying the number of cases and controlling the disease is progressing well, the likelihood of a second wave, after everything we have already been through, is understandably causing anxiety to many.

Amongst the many potential physical signs and symptoms of COVID-19 infection, Public Health England (PHE) also includes “mental health problems including depression, anxiety and cognitive difficulties”. These problems can be exacerbated by the rapidly evolving nature of the pandemic, coupled with seemingly contradictory and confusing advice that has often appeared.

When humans become anxious for any reason, one key element is heightened “threat appraisal”. This is a perfectly normal reaction and is part of the “fight or flight” response. During this phase, even the most innocuous of things can cause great distress.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented us with a very real “threat”, and everyone is affected to some extent, but those who are most likely to suffer stress and anxiety during the current pandemic are those who are prevented from undertaking their normal roles at work, either due to self-isolation, furlough, and sadly, in many cases, redundancy.

As a second wave potentially approaches, it provides us with the opportunity to understand why we may feel anxious about it – it is, after all, a normal response – and it provides employers with the chance to be better prepared in terms of the mental health and wellbeing support provided to their workforce.

It has been said that the line between work stress and life stress has been dissolved. Stress in any area of someone’s life contributes to, or is exacerbated by, stress at work. The gap between what employees need to support their mental health and what companies are actually providing needs to be closely analysed, and now is the time to fully embrace the concept of the whole employee — stress, anxiety, and all.

How Employers can Provide Support

There are many useful resources available to help employers address this vital challenge. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has long provided the Management Standards on work-related stress, based on the six key areas: demands, control, role, relationships, support and change. Unfortunately, risk-assessing work-related stress is widely misunderstood, being all-too-often regarded as a “nice to do” thing, rather than the legal requirement it really is.

Many progressive employers have taken important steps in supporting the health and wellbeing of their staff by providing mental health first-aid (MHFA) training. Designated, trained members of staff are appointed as points of contact for co-workers who may be struggling. The evidence so far has shown that the MHFA concept has helped to reduce the stigma associated with talking about mental health, enabled recovery and has provided a positive workplace culture in many organisations. There are several independent providers of this training in the UK.

For further information on creating (or improving) a positive mental health culture in the workplace, particularly amongst staff members who have experienced stress and anxiety associated with COVID-19, I would strongly recommend the MIND website, which looks at mental health at work, and also the ACAS support website, which offers excellent advice on mental health and employment law.

As previously mentioned, there are many reputable resources out there offering sound, free advice. Take this opportunity to further support the health and wellbeing of your workforce: it is an investment in both their own health and the future health of your business.

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