How to help staff post-COVID

The coronavirus pandemic has created a mental health crisis in the UK, and the outbreak is now having a significant impact on our workforce, says psychotherapist Noel McDermott

Mental ill health cost the economy £5.4bn back in 2015 – and 91% of those who developed mental health problems at work never returned to the workforce. Now is the time to plan for post-viral mental health issues, and the productivity issues associated with mental ill health.

Advice for employers on how to support staff after COVID

As a matter of course, if any of your staff have reported to you as having had, or suspecting themselves of having had, COVID-19 – and then go on to report absences that are related to mental health issues – this should trigger a HR occupational health process to investigate matters. This should be done in a sensitive way, but with the aim of determining if your employee has post-viral fatigue or post-viral syndrome; waiting for NHS services to diagnose this situation is a bit like burying your head in the sand. 

Post-viral syndrome

Post-viral syndrome can become a very long term illness called ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’ – and you will lose your member of staff. Early intervention and treatment are key. Things to look out for in your occupational health assessment should be known to your OH service doctor, but may not be looked at if the process you trigger is simply a mental health one; the psychological symptoms will appear as depression and anxiety, but it will not respond to a mental health treatment process alone. This can lead to wasted time, and entrenchment of the problems, leading to the condition possibly becoming chronic. 

Looking after your employees

In April 2020 over 30% of adults reported levels of mental distress, such as depression, indicative that treatment may be needed. Anxiety and depression are the most common mental health conditions, and are easily treatable, but need early intervention to ensure that they do not become chronic, and treatment-resistant. Conditions like this affect not only that employee’s productivity and happiness, but the entire mood of his or her co-workers, and their productivity too.

Mass unemployment is likely to be with us once the furlough schemes wind up and evidence shows that as unemployment increases, sadly, so does suicide. In Europe there is an almost 1:1 relationship between unemployment and suicide; with every 1% increase in unemployment, there is a 0.8% increase in the suicide rate.

For your HR teams, knowledge about post-viral syndrome conditions, and mental health issues, is a useful thing so that they can ensure they trigger the appropriate OH pathway.

Key signs that an employee could be struggling with post-virus mental health problems are:

  • sleep problems;
  • muscle or joint pain;
  • headaches; 
  • sore throat/glands that are not swollen;
  • problems thinking or remembering;
  • ‘flu-like symptoms; 
  • feeling dizzy or sick;
  • palpitations.

It is likely that you will also see changes in the behaviour, and quality of work produced, in an affected employee. Encouraging your HR teams to understand these issues can lead to early identification, and appropriate specialist intervention, which will ensure that the mental health services used work closely with medical and rehabilitation services, such as physiotherapy. This advice and approach is particularly relevant when you would normally fund medical and mental health services, through insurance, for affected employees. In relation to staff for whom the NHS is the main health service supplier, you can ensure they go informed, and armed, in order to gain appropriate rehabilitation services via their GP.

A sign that there may be need for professional help is if there are problems in functioning that are persistent over a two-week period. Periodic anxiety or depression lasting a short period of time are to be expected, and will generally shift of their own accord if your general mental hygiene/lifestyle is resilient. However, if these problems continue for days and weeks, then there is likely to be a problem needing proper diagnosis and treatment. Ensure that your staff have a range of support, arrange long term recovery and move from a treatment model to a rehabilitation model of support.

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