The good, the bad and the ugly: workplace mental health during COVID

The stats speak for themselves.

In February, the BBC published an article stating that mental health issues had worsened across all age groups in the past year.

To put that into perspective:

  • 31% of 16-39-year-olds showed signs of depression in June 2020 compared to 10.9% in June 2019.
  • 13% of 40-69-year-olds showed signs of depression in June 2020 compared to June 10.4% in 2019.
  • 10.3% of 70-and-overs showed signs of depression in June 2020 compared to 5% in June 2019.

And believe it or not, that was a year ago.

In May this year, The Guardian reported that 21% experienced some sort of depression during the second lockdown that began in January, an increase from 19% in November 2020 and more than double the figure reported before the pandemic.

A difficult time for employers and HR professionals

With so many people struggling with their mental or physical health during the pandemic, it was rough terrain for employers and their respective HR departments.

With many people working from home or furloughed, businesses found themselves in unknown territory. How do you keep furloughed employees engaged? Can we retain our staff when business resumes?

Undoubtedly, there have been successes and failures. We’re going to review the good, the bad and the ugly business practices during the pandemic and the impact it could have had on employee mental health.

The Good: Airbnb sets up a host relief fund

The pandemic didn’t start well for Airbnb, who received criticism for refunding all their customers for trips they could no longer attend. Seems fair enough, if you’d paid for a holiday you couldn’t go on, you’d want your money back.

What the company didn’t realise at the time was that they had a workforce they hadn’t considered, the property vendors, who had empty pockets and empty calendars.

Airbnb was quick to rectify the situation, though. They set up a $250 million relief fund that allowed hosts to claim back 25% of what they would get for a standard cancellation.

It’s an example that shows companies can rectify mistakes with swift and honest action and that vendors, buyers and employees are a critical part of your wellbeing initiatives.

How does providing adequate financial support improve mental health?

Physical entities like money, which buys food, shelter and water, are often underestimated when it comes to workplace mental health. While money doesn’t buy happiness, it helps us manage our lives and keep them stable.

  • Improves mood – if employees have more money to do the things they love, they’re more likely to have better moods.
  • Lowers anxiety – if an employee knows they can pay their bills on time and afford the essentials, they won’t have as much fear surrounding it.

Further reading: 10 companies that took care of their employees through COVID

The Bad: Tim Martin suggests Wetherspoons staff can work in Tesco

Back in March 2020, we all received the order to stay at home, and this is what the next few months were like for everyone in the UK.

Around that time, Wetherspoons founder and chairman Tim Martin posted a video to YouTube. He suggested that if furloughed staff wanted to go and work at Tesco, he would completely understand.

While it didn’t seem like Martin was telling his staff to leave, his video backfired, and the media accused him of ‘telling staff to work at Tesco’.

He also received criticism for saying he wouldn’t pay his staff if their furlough payments didn’t come through on time – the company’s turnover is £1.8 billion.

And with the hospitality industry struggling to recruit as businesses start to reopen, it seems many have inadvertently taken Martin’s advice, with one in ten hospitality workers leaving the industry in the last year

Unfortunately, whether it’s well-intentioned or not, telling staff to leave the company if they want to isn’t going to make them feel valued, it’ll have the opposite effect – and with Wetherspoons reportedly struggling for staff since reopening, Tim Martin’s video can’t have done them any favours.

How does devaluing employees affect mental health?

Making employees feel valued is critical if you want to keep them engaged, whether you’re a massive business like Wetherspoons or a small company. If you don’t, it can have consequences for their mental health.

  • Lack of motivation – undervalued employees are unlikely to give everything to the job and tend to lack drive and determination.
  • Paranoia – if companies leave employees feeling like they aren’t good enough, they may become paranoid about losing their job.
  • Low self-esteem – feeling undervalued can lead to employees developing a low opinion of themselves and what they provide to the company.
  • Depression – feeling like you don’t serve any purpose at work can lower your mood and make you feel worthless.

Further reading: Does the hospitality industry value its workers enough?

The Ugly: BrewDog CEO receives an open letter from employees

It came at the worst time for BrewDog CEO James Watt. The pubs were opening, life was getting back to normal, and people were starting to go out again, which can only be positive news for a beer brewer that supplies many pubs in the UK.

On the 10th of June, it was reported that 61 former staff signed an open letter to BrewDog accusing the company of a culture of fear. The letter noted the company had become a cult of personality, and everyone from HR to marketing felt scared of the owners.

Here’s an excerpt from the letter:

Put bluntly, the single biggest shared experience of former staff is a residual feeling of fear. Fear to speak out about the atmosphere we were immersed in, and fear of repercussions even after we have left. Hell, the company once set up a staff committee, under the guise of assembling a team of well-respected individuals to tackle cross-departmental projects, who at their first meeting discovered the actual main task of the group was to address the culture of fear in the business.

The story snowballed and picked up national news coverage from the BBC, where CEO James Watt vowed the company would do better and hired a culture consultant to help them diagnose problems. However, the damage to former employees’ mental health is already done.

How does fear impact employee mental health?

We all feel fear from time to time, the big Monday meeting or the new client we need to onboard. But when fear takes over and becomes a theme in our work life, it can have disastrous consequences.

  • Dissociation – feeling disconnected from thoughts, feelings, memories and surroundings.
  • Helplessness – if employees are scared when they are at work, they’re more likely to feel like they haven’t got anyone to turn to.
  • Phobic anxiety – may develop a fear of a particular situation or part of their job, like meetings.
  • Mood swings – employee behaviour may become unpredictable.
  • Obsessive-compulsive thoughts – getting persistent and unwanted thoughts and not being able to control them.

How will the pandemic affect workplace mental health moving forward?

It’s difficult to say. There’s so much changing at the minute, with talk of a four day work week, a five-hour day, hybrid working, fully remote working and whether working from home should be a legal right. We hope that people’s mental health starts to improve as the government lifts restrictions and people return to work.

If there’s one thing to remember, how you treat your employees in difficult times will be remembered for years, whether good or bad, and it’ll have a lasting impact on employee loyalty, engagement and productivity.

Has your employer helped or made your mental health worse during the pandemic?

We’re surveying workplace mental health and wellbeing, and we want to know how your employer has done. It doesn’t matter what department you work in; everyone’s opinion counts, and everyone’s opinion is different. And it’s 100% confidential.

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