Responsibility on bosses and staff to ensure virus mental health toll is kept under control - Robert Beaumont

The extraordinary and unprecedented challenges of the lockdown have taken a mental toll on most of us.

Financial pressure, job insecurity, social alienation and family disruption, combined with that low, almost indefinable, hum of anxiety, are heavy burdens to carry.

For the unlucky some, the loss of a dear family member or close friend from Covid-19 has put the last few months into a sharp, unforgiving perspective.

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As the lockdown eases, unless – or until – a second wave of the pandemic swamps us, thoughts are returning to longed-for opportunities (even if at a social distance) – to see friends, play sports, eat out, go to concerts, resume contact with family in ‘real space’ or get back to the work that we value.

Virus has taken a toll on mental health

But it would be fanciful – and wildly optimistic – to think that a return to normal, or as normal as the post-Covid-19 world will be, would be accompanied by undiluted joy and a clean bill of mental health. Changes, and disruption to our normal way of life, seldom come without a price. The new normal will not be normal at all.

Crucially, the prospect of coming out of lockdown when debate is still raging about the science supporting it, can be a real worry.

This may especially apply to those more susceptible to the virus and those with mental health concerns. People who have been shielding are especially at risk, as well as those who are vulnerable due to race, ethnicity and poverty.

It is absolutely vital that, as the majority of the nation slowly returns to the workplace, employers are especially vigilant towards every single one of their employees. Just as it took time to find ways of coping during lockdown, it will also take time to find our way back and to reconnect with work and life in the office.

Warnings over spikes in mental health issues

This is especially applicable to the two million extremely vulnerable people shielding in England. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) have said it would be “heartless and reckless” for bosses to demand the immediate return of shielding workers this month.

Those classed as “clinically extremely vulnerable” – with serious illness such as blood cancers and severe asthma, as well as those on immunosuppressant medication – have been ordered to shield for more than four months since March 23.

In demands to be presented to ministers, the TUC is asking employers not to force the return of their staff and instead to continue using the government’s job retention scheme for shielding workers, which runs until October. It is also calling for this to be extended for people who are told by their doctor that they should shield for longer.

Penelope Aspinall, consultant workplace trainer with leading mental health charity, the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust, believes the mental health of everyone returning to work, especially in the office, over the next few months should be a top priority for employers.

“There are a number of key factors to consider,” said Penny, who is based in Huddersfield.

“It is crucial to remember that one size does not fit all. A blanket approach to the mental health of your staff simply won’t work. Everyone is different. Everyone’s situation is different. The physical and psychological safety of every individual member of staff is absolutely paramount.”

As – and when – the lockdown eases, we are entering unchartered and distinctly choppy waters. It would be exceptionally foolish to expect everything to return to normal, just because we are back in the office, back off furlough or working full-time from home.

There will be major strains on our mental health and it is up to every one of us to look after each other – and ourselves. And, if you are a senior manager or the boss, that responsibility is even greater.