Supporting your staff with their mental health throughout COVID-19 and beyond

If one of your employees had the flu, were experiencing a stomach bug or had injured themselves, you’d expect them to call in sick – but would your expectations be the same if they were going through a period of mental-ill health? The chances are, probably not.

However, it’s important to remember that we all have mental health, and keeping it in check is just as crucial as looking after our physical health.

Given the uncertain circumstances that we’re currently living in as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, it’s arguably more vital than ever to support the mental health of your staff. Many may be struggling to adapt to remote working, or may be fearful that being a key worker is putting them and their families in danger. They may be finding it stressful to juggle home-schooling with work, or could simply be feeling lonely and isolated as a result of not being able to see their friends, family or colleagues.

According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2018, 17.5 million sick days were taken by workers who cited mental health conditions as the reason for them needing to take time off. Not only is this shocking in terms of the number of people battling with their mental health, but we also need to consider the business implications that any kind of absenteeism has – from reduced productivity to increased costs.

In this piece, I’ll explain everything you need to know about mental health sick days, highlight the warning signs you should look out for and provide tips on how to have those difficult conversations with staff and encourage an open dialogue around mental health in your business.

What are mental health sick days and does my business need to offer them?

Just a like a ‘standard’ sick day which an employee would take if they were feeling physically unwell, a mental health sick day is when someone takes the day off because mentally, they are unable to cope with their daily duties.

Legally speaking, there is no difference between an employee taking a sick day for mental health reasons than for physical reasons – so you should follow your standard sick leave procedure for anyone who needs to take time off because of mental ill-health.

It’s not a case of ‘should I offer them?’, but a case of ‘how do I ensure that my staff feel comfortable taking a mental health sick day?’. After all, stigmas still exist, and the last thing an individual who is suffering with their mental health would want to feel is judged, questioned or looked down upon.

If a member of staff actively discloses a mental health condition that they consider to be a disability (regardless of whether they mention in as soon as you hire them or further into their employment), they are then protected under the Equality Act. You can then refer the individual to occupational health, particularly if their condition is impacting their ability to fulfil their role.

As their employer, you also have a duty to make reasonable adjustments – such as adapting working hours, allowing time off for treatment, looking into alternative work locations or temporarily reallocating tasks which they find stressful.

Looking out for the warning signs

Mental ill-health doesn’t discriminate, and people can become unwell at any point – so it’s just as important to look out for warning signs in staff who have been with your company for years as it is for new starters.

People’s circumstances and abilities to cope with stress can change at the drop of a hat, so always be mindful about what people could have going on both in their personal and professional lives.

These are just some of the signs that could indicate a member of staff is struggling with their mental health:

  • Becoming withdrawn
  • Avoiding meetings
  • Avoiding social events (prior to the UK being put under lockdown)
  • Poor levels of productivity and behaviour
  • Increased absence 
  • Mood swings or erratic/aggressive behaviour
  • Tearfulness
  • Being distracted
  • Panic attacks, or physical symptoms such as shaking and sweating

Given that many workplaces are having to work remotely due to COVID-19, it’s more difficult to spot these warning signs when you’re not seeing your staff face-to-face. Check in with your team members on an individual basis via whichever video-call platform you’re using, and ask them how they’re coping. Be mindful of how they look and sound, as this can be a tell-tale sign that they’re battling poor mental health.

On the flipside, also be wary that they may be ‘putting on a front’ when they call you to mask their true feelings. As a manager, you need to tread carefully and make it clear that they can be open and honest about anything that’s troubling them.

Encouraging open and honest conversations

It’s an unfortunate fact that mental health is still something people feel uncomfortable and even embarrassed talking about – but it shouldn’t be that way.

Advice for line managers

Line managers should be proactive in breaking down the stigma, and actively encourage open and honest conversations. Lead by example and share a time where you have struggled with your own mental health – whether talking about a time you have felt stressed about your workload, sharing any advice you’ve been given or even disclosing elements of your personal life that have impacted your mental health.

This will give your team the confidence to speak up about things which are causing them worry and anxiety, and in turn help you to put a plan in place to support them and reduce the risk of it affecting their work. Always remember that conversation is a two-way process, and the more you can get your team talking, the more you can offer tailored support.

If you’re concerned about someone’s performance and think mental health problems may be to blame, you should address this sensitively. It’s likely that if someone is struggling they won’t react to feedback in the best way, so make sure you also highlight the things they are doing well, and make it clear how you can support them to do better. Help them to break down the barriers and realise their potential, without putting pressure on them or making them feel like they’re not worthy of their role.

Advice for organisations

If you haven’t already got some kind of mental health policy in place, there’s never been a better time to put one together. It’s predicted that the COVID-19 pandemic will have prolonged and profound effects on mental health, so you’ll need to have a plan in place to support your staff both now and in the future.

Here are some of the things which you can consider offering or implementing:

  • Introduce an Employee Assistance Programme – these services are free for your staff to access and can provide counselling and support for a range of issues which can affect mental health, including finances and relationships.
  • Organise mental health training for managers – this will help them to recognise warning signs, initiate conversations, arrange tailored support and manage their own mental health more effectively.
  • Implement Mental Health First Aiders – Mental Health First Aiders are members of staff which receive specialist training to support their colleagues through a crisis situation. Often, employees can feel more comfortable talking to a peer rather than a manager, so this is another great way to encourage honest yet difficult conversations.
  • Arrange wellbeing webinars – whether hosted by a line manager, a HR representative or even an external charity, webinars are a great way to bring people together and allows them to ask questions and share advice in an open forum. Once lockdown has eased and people can begin returning to their place of work, ‘lunch and learn’ sessions can help to keep the conversation around mental health flowing.
  • Set up a mental health working group – get together a group of colleagues who can work with your HR department to work on a mental health strategy and share their ideas. Get a cross-section of volunteers to make sure as many people are represented as possible.

Although the stigma around mental health does seem to be slowly diminishing, it’s clear that a lot more needs to be done to get people talking without fear of being shamed, discriminated or not being taken seriously.

At the Growth Company, we already offer a package of mental health support to our staff, and are in the process of putting together a Time to Change pledge to develop this further. Everybody should feel supported by their workplace, as there’s often no darker place to be than in your own thoughts at times.

One thing I’d encourage all businesses to do as we come out of the COVID-19 pandemic is to review their mental health support and think about ways in which it can be improved. It’s also vitally important to check in with your staff on a regular basis and signpost them to support – whether it be your own or third party resources – as we all work together to support each other throughout these challenging times.


Vicky Barton, Director of HR and Organisation Development, Growth Company