Worker wellbeing

19 August 2020

Although the latest Covid-19 statistics are encouraging the impact lockdown has had on our mental health is not. Mike Robinson looks at the challenges for employers.

THE LATEST figures for the number of deaths with Covid-19 has been consistently falling over the course of the summer. ONS statistics from the second half of August show that six of the nine regions of England have fewer total deaths compared with the five-year average. As we have watched cases creep up in other parts of the world, including in some European countries that had very small outbreaks at the start of the pandemic, we must not take anything for granted. Preparation for a second wave of the virus later in the year is prudent. However, the encouraging statistics on Covid-19 are balanced by some very alarming figures that reveal the impact the lockdown has had on our mental health. 

The same set of ONS statistics reveal that almost one in five adults (19.2 per cent) were likely to be experiencing some form of depression during the pandemic. The figures for June 2020 show that depression has almost doubled from one in ten (9.7%) last year. The most likely to be affected were those aged 16-39, women, those facing unexpected expenses and those with a disability. The most common symptoms of depression are feeling stressed and anxious. Although mental illness can affect anyone, the impact of the lockdown seems to be hitting the young harder than other groups. The challenge we face as we rebuild our society and our economy is how we ensure that those who were least at risk from the virus – the young and active, women and those in good physical health – do not become the unwitting victims of a new mental health pandemic that threatens lasting damage. 

The decisions employers make in the coming weeks will be critical to our mental health as a nation. Recent research from Cambridge University shows that the mental health of workers on furlough has been similar to those who have stayed at work. While 28 per cent of people in full-time work have experienced poor mental health, the figure was 27 per cent for those on furlough. Evidence suggests that the furlough scheme has had a positive impact on mental health and that holding on to paid work on furlough or reduced hours has protected wellbeing. The challenge now is to ensure that as the furlough scheme is wound down it does not trigger mass redundancies, which would further jeopardise mental health. No organisation is immune from the economic challenges that the pandemic has presented, but we can take every step to support our workforce to find new jobs and to use the existing government support for as long as we can. 

Another challenge for employers is how to manage the return to work. Most employers recognise that we cannot simply turn the clock back to early March 2020. Working from home has its challenges and not everyone has enjoyed the benefits it can bring. For others, however, the prospect of a return to the daily commute holds no appeal. Instead employers should learn the lessons of the lockdown, retaining flexibility where it is working well but giving a lifeline to workers who really value the social aspects of the workplace. 

Here at the British Safety Council we have been listening to our members, hearing their stories from the frontline and responding to the new challenges they face. That is why we are rolling out the Covid Assurance Assessment, giving employers peace of mind that they have carried out the necessary risk assessments to make their workplaces Covid-19 secure. We are also launching a comprehensive new wellbeing product – Being Well Together – that addresses the complex and interrelated drivers of workplace wellbeing. This crisis has thrown up many new challenges, and most workplaces in the UK have stepped up to protect their workforce and keep their businesses alive in tough circumstances. As the initial wave of infections falls – and let us hope that trend remains – we face a new set of challenges. For employers, 2021 may prove just as tough as 2020. Delivering worker wellbeing is the best guarantee that we can all thrive at work as we face an uncertain future. 

Mike Robinson is chief executive at British Safety Council. For more information, visit