As the UK government announced plans to improve mental health services in April, more people are returning to the office following the COVID-19 restrictions. But with the stigma surrounding mental health still an issue, how can employers supporting employees during times of transition?
The Impact of COVID Lockdowns on Mental Health
Mental health problems affect one in four employees in the UK. This is even more prevalent amongst young people, with anxiety and depression accounting for more than five million lost working days.
However, according to research, managed service providers (MSPs) are ill-equipped to support these individuals, with only ten per cent having formal policies in place; the same percentage said they were not confident of knowing how to help with mental health issues. A worrying statistic, given that mental illness is estimated to cost the UK economy around £105 billion each year.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in millions of workers being off sick, businesses have had to get better at handling mental health issues. They must now look at how they can landscape policies for this, especially when it comes to employees returning to the workplace following a period of sick leave.
There are different types of mental health problems; the most common include anxiety, depression and alcohol use disorder (alcohol addiction). Sufferers will experience periods of extreme lows, followed by periods where they feel normal again. But perhaps the most concerning outcome is when someone feels like they cannot cope like this anymore; in these instances some people may feel hopeless and suicidal (which disproportionately affects young men).
Alcohol Use During the Pandemic
Alcohol use rose during the pandemic, with one third of people saying that they had consumed alcohol at some point during the pandemic. An estimated 7 million people took time off work to go to hospital after missing a shift because of alcohol.
in the UK around 25 per cent of people who drink alcohol regularly have an alcohol problem, which is 12 times higher than in hard drug addictions.
With this in mind, employers need to consider the possibility that some of their employees may have developed a dependency on alcohol during UK lockdowns.
Paul Spanjar owner of the Providence Projects alcohol rehab centre, believes the situation with alcohol abuse in the UK could get worse.
"Addiction is a complex illness that typically revolves around denial. It can take individuals many months, even years to accept that a problem exists. If we consider the backlog in the context of recent lockdowns, and possibly more lockdowns to follow, any current data around alcohol abuse in the UK will be inaccurate."
He added: “Those in the grip of addiction will go through extreme lengths to hide their problem, so it may not always be obvious to employers that a problem exists”.
While alcohol dependency has been on the rise since COVID-19, other addictions have also been seen on the rise, including gambling addiction and an increase in cocaine use across the UK.
Mental Health Problems and the impact on work productivity
Mental health problems such as anxiety and depression impact businesses negatively . Sufferers may be less productive and more likely to call in sick. For example, in February 2015, there were around 1.7 million working days lost to depression and anxiety in the UK; something that costs the economy £6.5 billion a year.
In addition, when someone is depressed, this can result in them making less accurate decisions, which could increase the chance of their performance being negatively affected.
What Should Businesses be Doing as Employees Return to Work Post-Lockdowns?
Removing the stigma surrounding mental health and addiction should be at the forefront of every business owners' mind. Openly engaging in conversations around mental health and addiction and talking through any issues that employees may have should take centre stage.
While businesses may be pushing to get people back to the office, a phased approach should be considered to allow people to adjust. Flexible working arrangements for a period of time may be a good decision, especially for those with pre-existing mental health problems, or other conditions such as Autism and ADHD, who typically need more time to adjust to changes.
By taking the time to understand how people are feeling, and in turn making an impact on their health in a positive way, businesses can help save money in the long run. It is much easier when people do not feel stigmatised or afraid to ask for help. Furthermore, when an employee feels supported during this process they are much more likely to return to work even when they feel that they cannot cope.
Taking a caring and compassionate approach to employees who may be struggling with alcohol use, will allow individuals to open up about their drinking problems and make them more open to seeking help.
Taking a proactive approach by funding treatment for employees will help to increase transparency, and allow them to get the best treatment. While many small businesses cannot afford private rehab for their staff, there are many other cheaper alternatives such as private counselling or outpatient care.