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Stress and Covid-19: How can HR support staff?

With much of the workforce now fragmented across remote working or socially distanced set ups, it’s fair to say HR have their work cut out for them. In pre-pandemic times, mental health-related absence was the most common cause of long-term sickness, according to the CIPD. The CIPD and Simply Health Health and Wellbeing at Work report published in March found that two-fifths of respondents revealed an increase in stress-related absence over the last year, while three fifths said there had been an increase in mental health conditions.

That was before the global health crisis had hit this part of the world and since then, things have got worse. Figures published this month by the ONS revealed an increase in anxiety levels and lockdown-related loneliness among the UK population with 37 per cent reporting high anxiety levels. Almost half of adults surveyed said their wellbeing had been affected by the pandemic and an earlier ONS report found 69 per cent of women and 52 per cent of men said they currently felt stressed or anxious.

Now more than ever, employees need support. That’s why this year’s World Wellbeing Week (22-26 June) is especially significant. It’s a chance for HR to raise awareness around stress and mental health while signposting employees to help and support workplace initiatives available through their EAP or health insurance provider.

Be proactive rather than responsive

So what can HR do to support their people?
“Rather than responding to poor mental health, the workplace should be actively promoting positive wellbeing through a positive company culture,” says Jayne Scott, employee benefits consultant at IHC. “HR should take proactive steps to create a positive approach to mental health.”

Engaging with staff around mental health issues is absolutely key, whether through targeted communications with compelling visuals or opening up discussions among team members to reduce stigma. EAPs in particular, can support workplace health and wellbeing initiatives to help staff adjust to a new way of working.

“IHC have seen an increase in clients implementing EAPs both in the UK and internationally since the pandemic,” says Scott. “They can provide general support for employees and provide health and wellbeing workshops.”

Health insurance providers too, offer mental health and fitness assessments through health and wellbeing portals with some even providing fitness sessions the whole family can enjoy.

According to Scott, most providers have been quick to respond to the pandemic, creating information hubs for both employer and employees as well as providing access to virtual services including mental health pathways and clinicians as well as GPs and physiotherapists.

Address underlying causes

For employees currently experiencing high levels of stress during this time, it’s important for HR to try and address the underlying causes – often it may be about ‘burnout’ from working longer hours at home, especially if staff are finding it difficult to switch off.

Stress may not be entirely work-related, though. With redundancies likely, staff furloughed and businesses either closing or shutting temporarily, many employees will be experiencing financial stress and hardship. It’s important then for HR to be aware and utilise as many of their existing resources as possible.

Scott recommends reminding staff of 24/7 telephone helplines offered through health insurance providers and signposting struggling employees to organisations such as Citizens Advice Bureau who can help with debt and financial difficulties.

Utilise what you already have

“Often it’s about promoting existing services already in place, rather than investing in alternatives,” Scott explains. “EAPs are generally low cost and many offer debt counselling or financial advice services. HR should make sure they are regularly reminding staff about the different services EAPs provide as often it can make all the difference.”

Keep in touch

Finally, HR should take steps to address feelings of isolation especially those who are now working remotely. Online interaction, says Scott, is essential in maintaining some degree of normality, whether through company quizzes via Zoom, light-hearted emails or interactive Q&As.

“One of my clients had two weekly webinars to encourage employees to think about different topics like managing children whilst working at home or nutrition and fitness advice,” she explains. “So anything that keeps the company spirit going and encourages a feel of co-working will really help, even if it’s just a half hour chat with colleagues at the end of the week.”

IHC are available for all clients and can provide advice and support on this or any other issue affecting your business during this difficult time.

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