COVID-19, job loss and mental health the focus of discussion as SMEN returns after lockdown

18th September 2020

On Wednesday last week (9th September), Swindon Mindful Employer Network (SMEN) returned for the first time since lockdown, with SMEN members gathering online to hear from experts in the field of business and mental health.

The coronavirus pandemic has been a testing time for many of us personally, professionally and financially, heaping added pressures on employers and employees alike. Accordingly, given the tumultuous state of the world, mental health experts have warned of a looming mental health crisis, with the coronavirus pandemic exacerbating common triggers of poor mental health such as illness and job insecurity.

Against this general background, the main focus and topic of the event, as introduced by Chair Yazmin Taylor of Swindon & Gloucestershire Mind (SG Mind), was: COVID-19, jobs loss and mental health.

To kick off proceedings, Business Co-Ordinator Yazmin Taylor introduced herself to the Network, reminding everyone of the purpose of SMEN, which is to “destigmatise and minimise the impact of mental health issues in the workplace and empower employers to support the mental wellbeing of their staff”.

Yazmin then recounted some choice statistics demonstrating just how critical mental health and mental health services are at this moment in time. At SG Mind alone they have seen a 40 percent increase in wellbeing appointments since April 2020, whereas a recent CIPD survey reported a large-scale increase in mental health issues amongst employees fearing redundancy.

The session’s guest speakers would cover the emotional impact of redundancy, ways of reducing this impact and the redundancy process and employee rights said Yazmin, before introducing Lucy McIntosh of Swindon Citizens Advice Bureau to the 40 or so SMEN members assembled on the call.

Lucy’s talk focussed on the practicalities of the redundancy process and how to ensure it is carried out fairly. She emphasised the need to plan for each stage of the redundancy process and act with compassion and sensitivity, from consulting staff, to selection and giving notice.

Communication around this process is key she said, compelling employers to check that the process is clearly explained in the staff handbook and/or employment contract and makes plain selection criteria, timescales and how to appeal. Ensuring the process is carried out in this way, will enable at risk employees to better cope and come to terms with job loss.

Lucy also identified ways of avoiding redundancies altogether, suggesting employers consider flexible working, reduced working hours, furlough, redeployment and cutting overtime instead. But if employers really must go down the redundancy route they need to be aware that staff who remain in post may suffer ‘survivor’s guilt’ and encounter increased workloads leading to burnout. Employers must also consider offering counselling, financial advice and retraining of employees selected for redundancy to enable them to minimise the mental toll of job loss and ultimately come to terms with it.

Finally, Lucy discussed redundancy and the importance of a fair selection policy related to COVID, before Suzanne Baxter, Trainer at SG Mind, began her presentation.

With the key fundamentals of redundancy having been outlined Suzanne shifted the focus of the discussion to the impacts of redundancy on mental health and ways to support employees throughout the process.

She started by posing a fundamental question to set the scene and help Network members relate the COVID-19 pandemic to the mental health crisis we are facing as a nation.

“What is mental health?” she asked, before offering this definition: “Mental health refers to cognitive, behavioural and mental wellbeing.” Suzanne then went on to add: “COVID is a health threat and major life event that affects a lot of people”, meaning that many of us will experience trauma in response to such an event. 

In other words, the mental health issues many of us may be experiencing right now are a normal and natural response to an event that threatens our sense of security, whether that’s in terms of our health, finances or our support network, for example.

For many employees, redundancy is experienced as a traumatic event, which can provoke an emotional response such as anger and grief and/or an anxiety response, leaving employees fearful or lacking self-esteem.

Over time employees will begin to accept and process what has happened. It is therefore vital to enable acceptance and give employees control to help start and accelerate this process.

It is equally important to create a supportive and inspiring environment for employees not selected for redundancy, said Suzanne, and pointed out that as a line manager self-care is paramount. How else can managers be expected effectively to lead a team?

Jessica Bailey, Managing Director at Changetoolbox followed Suzanne Baxter, giving a pre-recorded talk on the emotional challenges of job loss and COVID-19 on employees.

Changetoolbox is a company that provides change management consultancy services, enabling companies and individuals to thrive in testing times.

She urged managers to pay particular attention to the mental and emotional state of employees, given that incidences of depression are reported to have doubled in 2020. With depression increasingly widespread, businesses need to manage the emotional curve of employees to minimise risk, she said.

To enable companies to do so more effectively, Jessica outlined her due diligence test, which encourages employers to monitor change in productivity, behaviour and performance of staff.

Jessica also spoke about improving workforce resilience, given that we are faced with increasingly uncertain times, as this can help deescalate negative emotions. 

Following Jessica’s presentation, the event’s chair Yazmin Taylor offered a summary of key takeaways from the session and invited SMEN members to sign up for the event on 30th September.

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