As lockdown eases and society moves towards establishing some kind of new normality, we've seen employers undertaking surveys of employees to better understand their views on coming back to the office. Lesley Allan asks whether employers have gained a richer understanding of employee mental health and what that means for their duty of care for those employees?
According to newspaper headlines, Britons may be suffering from 'coronaphobia' – a fear of leaving the safety of their homes. On that basis, one might think the return to the workplace would provoke higher levels of anxiety and stress among employees. However, that's too simplistic. Within the workforce are many for whom the return to work is eagerly anticipated. For example, many people with mental health issues have found the isolation of lockdown hard to deal with. The buzz of the office and the companionship it offers can help manage some conditions.
On the other hand, whether individuals are keen or cautious about returning to the workplace, many will see the daily commute as fraught with risk. Having heeded the government's message to stay home, the prospect of jumping on a bus or train to access a working environment outside their direct control is daunting.
For any individual with a history of anxiety or stress-related disorders, then clearly the return to the workplace could exacerbate those conditions. However, in such generally challenging times, employers should also have regard to what they know about how all employees have coped during lockdown, and how they seem likely to cope with the return.
The employer's duty is to take reasonable care to avoid foreseeable psychiatric or psychological harm to their staff. What 'reasonable care' for mental health requires, especially in the post COVID-19 workspace, is difficult to define. Assessing the likely effect on a person's body of using equipment or lifting a weight is relatively simple. Unfortunately, one can't look inside someone's head in the same manner.
Remote working can make it challenging to gauge an employee's state of mind. In a face-to-face meeting, the interviewer is better able to assess tone, posture and eye contact. A Zoom call is less conducive to assessing emotional responses from employees, particularly if they feel that any anxieties displayed could be perceived as weakness.
By and large, employers can expect the average person to be able to cope with the average job and even with some additional stress over a short period of time. If that stress is prolonged, if the effect of it is clear, or if the employee's concerns are not acted upon, the chances of a successful claim for illness increase. An employee survey is a positive step to reduce the potential for claims – if it is acted upon. Maintaining regular contact with staff, listening to concerns – and acting on them – is another.
If anything good comes out of this pandemic for the workplace, it could be that it has helped employers truly wake up to the importance of employee wellbeing. Managers across the country have been having regular conversations with staff, asking about their feelings and listening to the answers. These are positive developments.When our workplaces return to something close to what we knew before COVID-19, the gains we've made in talking about and promoting mental health will not be lost.
This article was first published in the Insurance Post on 14 July 2020.
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