Bouncing back from the Covid-19 crisis: reflections on mental health and resilience
Firms that survive adversity often have the abilities, characteristics and actions of their employees to thank. As many reflected during Mental Health Awareness Week last week, it is worth remembering that the current crisis will undoubtedly have impacted upon the mental health of employees. Yet a new ERC study indicates that the majority of UK firms are unaware of the impacts of employee mental health issues on their business performance, and that most do not know where to go for advice on this crucial subject. If businesses are to bounce back from the crisis provoked by Covid-19, it is vital that they understand how the experience has affected the mental health of their staff, and to engage more fully with available mental health support initiatives.
Research has shown that resilient businesses – those that are able to bounce back, strengthened, from adversity – often depend, among other things, on the individual resilience of their employees. Specific capabilities observed in employees which support firm-level resilience include cognitive capabilities such as the ability to assimilate new information quickly in order to make sense of new circumstances, and behavioural capabilities like tolerance for uncertainty, and the ability to co-operate and work within teams. Individual employees’ capacities to regulate their own emotions, and to build social networks of trusted colleagues have also been found to contribute positively to their firms’ ability to withstand shocks.
It follows that in order to bounce back from the current crisis, many firms will need the support and commitment of their employees, to negotiate the tricky times ahead. Yet clearly for many workers, this period has been one of extreme uncertainty and challenge. For example, according to the Mental Health Foundation, 34 per cent of UK adults in full-time work are anxious about losing their jobs in the present circumstances. In 2019 in the UK, 30 per cent of the workforce experienced working at home at some time, and around 5 per cent worked at home most of the time. Current estimates indicate that 49 per cent of the UK workforce is working at home during this crisis. Of course, for many this will have been a positive experience, but for others lone working may have provoked psychological stress and feelings of isolation as they grapple with their new circumstances. Well-documented challenges of remote working include task and role ambiguity and communication difficulties, which can impede effective performance and cause stress and anxiety in remote workers. Combining home-working with home-schooling and caring for the vulnerable will undoubtedly have exacerbated the situation for many.
The impacts of mental health issues in the workplace are costly and often unrecognised, according to our new research. The study was carried out as a part of the Mental Health and Productivity Pilot (MHPP), a three-year programme which is under way in the Midlands, which aims to develop evidence-based interventions to help employers support good mental health amongst their employees. Our study found significant associations between productivity and long-term and mental health sickness & absence. A recent report estimates the economic costs of poor mental health and well-being in the workplace in the UK to be between £42 billion and £44.7 billion per year but the ERC study suggests these costs may not be known to many employers. While many employers cite issues outside of work for the mental health problems of their staff, the study also finds that internal factors, including lone working and job insecurity, can often be a cause.
The fact that employers do not seem to know the cost of mental ill-health in the workplace does not mean they are not concerned by the issue. However, proactive activities to support mental health and well-being were found in a minority of businesses. Only 22 per cent of firms surveyed had a mental health plan, and only 35 per cent had a health and well-being lead at senior or Board level. Perhaps unsurprisingly, smaller firms were less likely than larger ones to have these initiatives in place.
When it comes to seeking advice about mental health issues in the workplace, the ‘go-to’ sources appear to be HR-related rather than specialist mental health advisers. Mental health charities were cited by only 14% of respondents, and implementation of major mental health initiatives, including the Health and Safety’s Stress Management Standards (HSE), the Time to Change Pledge, and the Stevenson/Farmer Thriving at Work report were reported by few firms.
The message is clear: for business leaders, engaging in a meaningful way with employee mental health and understanding its impacts on their businesses is crucial for future resilience. For business support agencies, actively signposting businesses to appropriate advice and support is vital now and in the future.
Maria Wishart, ERC Research Fellow
Please note that the views expressed in this blog belong to the individual blogger and do not represent the official view of the
Enterprise Research Centre, its Funders or Advisory Group.