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one year on the mental health impact of Covid on the workplace

One year on: the mental health impact of Covid on the workplace

With the UK still in lockdown over a year after Covid-19 first arrived in the country, businesses and employees have seen a huge shift in the way they work.

While mental health and economic recovery remain high on the agenda, the true cost of the pandemic is yet to be seen. Before business leaders start planning for the post-Covid world, they must first ensure their people are able to cope with the challenges of today.

In our latest report – Coping with Covid – we explore the results of a 1,600-person independent survey into workplace health and wellbeing across England, to uncover the hidden impact of the pandemic on businesses and their people.

Employees took more mental health days off in 2020

Our research found that employees reported 10% more mental health absences in 2020 compared to 2019, bringing the average to 3.2 days per employee per year. This increase cost the economy an additional £1.3bn.

The data is particularly valuable because these absence figures were self-reported by employees and may not be reflected in companies’ payroll. Mental health days off are sometimes recorded as general illness or booked as annual leave, masking the full extent of mental health issues across the business.

Furloughed employees may not be accounted for

Employees who struggled with their mental health while on furlough are unlikely to have reported it but may still be affected when they return to work. This group will be largely unaccounted for in both our research and companies’ HR records.

With 9.9 million workers having had time off as part of the furlough scheme, leadership and HR teams should be realistic about the business impact not only of reduced output, but also any changes in mental health that may have gone undetected while the employee was off work.

Staff returning from furlough may find it difficult to pick up where they left off, and employers should plan ahead to offer additional mental health support for those who show signs that they’re struggling.

Poor mental health reduces productivity and engagement

The link between mental health and productivity is well-established. A 2019 meta-analysis by LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance found that higher wellbeing is positively correlated with productivity and business profitability. The study analysed wellbeing data from almost 2 million employees and the performance of over 80,000 businesses.

Over a third (36%) of employees in our research reported that their productivity is negatively affected by their mental health at least once a week. This trend has been exacerbated by the pandemic, with 28% of employees saying they feel less engaged than this time last year.

Unlike recorded absences, the business impact of low productivity is not immediately visible to employers. Employees are more likely to ‘power through’ for some time before taking a mental health day off.

The business impact of these lost days is difficult to account for, but leaders can soften the blow by building contingencies into their forecasts and targets and allowing managers to proactively manage mental health within their own teams.

Presenteeism may be 2021’s biggest challenge

The effect of mental health on productivity points to a rise in presenteeism – when employees come into work (either physically or remotely) despite illness, injury or mental health problems. While the employee is technically at work, they are likely to underperform and may make more mistakes than usual.

Less than half (46%) of employees reported high engagement this winter and 32% reported low morale, but the pandemic makes spotting these problems an even bigger challenge. Opportunities for team building and collaboration are severely limited, and managers may find it more difficult to step in when needed.

Remote employees may feel unproductive but continue to exaggerate their online visibility. Those going into work may be distracted by other issues which go unnoticed in a socially distanced world.

Download the full Coping with Covid report for a more in-depth look at employee mental health and wellbeing, including detailed statistics and advice for HR and people managers.

For tips on supporting your employees through this difficult time, join us at our free webinar:

5 tips to support your employees’ mental health and spot the signs of presenteeism

Monday 22nd February, 12:00 – 12:45 PM

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