September 15, 2020
Thinking back to life before COVID-19, it almost feels surreal that it was normal to stand less than 2 meters apart from someone and that it was ‘safe’ to walk into a shop without sanitising the trolley or basket or use public transport without a face mask. A lot has changed since March 2020. 1 in 5 Brits believe life will never be the same again1. As we’re now emerging from lockdown, many Brits are gradually returning to work and chances are, their work environment will have changed dramatically.
The slow return to ‘normal’
Starting up the workforce and getting the economy moving again is a positive step in the overall quest to return to ‘normal’. Employers have a duty of care for their workforce as they return to work to ensure their physical health and safety as well as their mental health is the top priority.
Six in ten people in the UK have been given the option to work from home and 92% have been taking up this practice because of COVD-19. With the 1.2million Brits still furloughed, the number of people gradually returning to the workplace is staggering. Social distancing measures, hand sanitising stations, compulsory facemasks and increased work flexibility are just some of the methods considered by UK businesses as they revaluate their HR processes and work environments to ensure they are supporting their staff as they return to work.
Even with robust return to work plans in place by employers, 43% of people in the UK are worried about catching COVID-19 or a second outbreak occurring when they eventually resume working. It’s only natural that employees are apprehensive about returning to their place of work and have concerns around their own safety and wanting to keep their loved ones safe – particularly if they live with or care for people who are vulnerable or shielding.
It’s fair to say that COVID-19 has changed the world. Change isn’t always good and is one of the biggest causes of stress, so it’s vital that we recognise the psychological impact this can have. According to Cigna’s COVID-19 Global Impact Study, and sadly, 28% state that they don’t currently have anyone to discuss their mental health concerns with. In the wake of the global pandemic, access to employer-provided mental health support for employees will be more important than ever. This can help ease the stress and anxiety that the thought of returning to ‘normal’ can bring.
Time to Check-in
Enhancing the workplace wellness programme by implementing a simple and effective ‘check-in’ culture to help ease employee stress levels is a good starting point.
As we continue to navigate our way through COVID-19 and beyond, regular check-ins can extend beyond that of employees. Every individual should be encouraged to check-in with those they care about – their family, friends, neighbours and colleagues. Cigna Europe’s ‘Stress Care Check-in’ campaign aims to empower individuals on how to spot the signs if someone is needing mental health support and teach them basic techniques to help one another. Cigna Europe is urging all people and businesses to treat this as seriously as they would basic first aid or mental health first aid and adopt a ‘Stress Care Check-in’ as company practice going forward.
To help encourage employers to create a ‘check-in’ culture in the workplace, Dr. Peter Mills, Cigna Europe’s in-house medical expert, shares his top tips for incorporating check-ins into conversations with employees.
- Warm-up – talk about lighter topics and gradually start going deeper. Being open about your own experiences is a great way of starting conversations.
- Ask Open-ended Questions – ask non-invasive questions that help guide the person towards finding potential solutions to their issue.
- Listen actively – give full focus on what the person is saying – actually talk about how they’re coping.
- Be non-judgmental – avoid responses such as ‘You’re just having a bad week’ or ‘I’m sure it’s nothing’. Be non-judgmental and take them seriously.
It’s also important for employers to appreciate that it’s not always easy for someone who’s feeling stressed or anxious to speak openly about it, even during a relaxed check-in conversation. So it’s vital to also be able to spot the signs of someone who is struggling. Dr Peter Mills outlines some common changes in behaviour to look out for:
- Unusual emotional reactions to relatively normal situations
- Loss of interest in social activities
- Inability to cope with day to day commitments
- Extreme fatigue
- Becoming more and more withdrawn
- Less willing to contribute with discussions
Make the most of virtual health tools
In addition to regular check-ins, virtual health tools can further complement existing workplace wellness programmes.
Virtual health services have increased in popularity since the beginning of COVID-19 and they can be offered by employers as a tool to support their employees. 52% of Brits say they are likely to choose virtual health appointments rather than face to face ones and in particular, 74% say they’d use virtual health tools for mental health support1.
Cigna Europe offers online Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) platforms such as Living Life to the Full to its employees and clients. These tools are designed to help people build resilience and develop skills to better manage stress and anxiety - to be calmer, more confident and in control.
As we begin the reintegration process following the COVID-19 outbreak, many employees may be required to navigate public spaces, commuter journeys, food and drink outlets, and more people than they have seen in several weeks or months. This can lead to anxiety, fear, and distress – something not to be taken likely by employers.
The psychological impact of COVID-19 is expected to be seen for a long time to come. Employers must commit to making the health and well-being of their employees an important and immediate priority. There is a need for a continued, open conversation and dedicated resources to prioritise mental health, both immediately post-pandemic and beyond.
1 - Cigna’s COVID-19 Global Impact Study