The hidden impact of the Covid pandemic

It’s OK to say you’re not OK – and in a typical workplace, that’s certainly not always felt like it’s the case.

But as we edge back to what will hopefully be a return to a more normal working world, employers will need to be more aware than ever before about the toll which Covid-19 has taken on staff.

For some, working from home has been an easy transition – even a pleasure – but for others, it’s become a cluttered part of a frenetic and stressful work-life balance.

The proportion of people showing symptoms of stress or depression has almost doubled since the start of the pandemic, according to the Office for National Statistics.

In the run-up to the first lockdown, roughly 10% of people showed moderate to severe symptoms, compared with 19% by last summer.

But as a result, the issue has also risen far higher up the agenda for employers.

Shropshire Chamber of Commerce has launched a new Mental Health Charter to recognise employers who are going the extra mile to look after the welfare of their staff.

It is part of a campaign to keep the mental health debate at the very top of the agenda as companies tentatively emerge from lockdown.

Every company which signs up to the free charter receives a certificate of recognition. In return, all they have to do is pledge to adopt three key principles:

  • Engaging with and embracing the mental health agenda
  • Reducing the stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace
  • Identifying and providing sources of information and support regarding mental health
Andy Begley signing the new Mental Health Charter

Among the first to sign up were the county’s two local authorities, Shropshire Council and Telford & Wrekin Council.

Chief executive of Shropshire Council, Andy Begley, says: “After a particularly difficult year, it’s no surprise that mental health is high on everyone’s agenda.

“As a council we have always promoted open conversations around mental health, and have lots of support in place to help people when they need it, including a newly-appointed wellbeing officer.

“However, we can and should do more. This is why I was eager to sign Shropshire Chamber of Commerce’s new Mental Health Charter.”

David Sidaway, chief executive of Telford & Wrekin Council, adds: “We already have a number of initiatives in place to support employee wellbeing relating to mental health, with further projects in the pipeline.

“This in an agenda we are eager to develop and so we are delighted to sign up to the Mental Health Charter as a sign of our commitment.”

Richard Sheehan, Shropshire Chamber of Commerce’s chief executive, says: “Looking after the mental health of staff is more crucial than ever as people gradually return to the workplace.

“Some people have had virtually all social contact removed during lockdown, and may be filled with trepidation at the thought of going back into the office, or nervous about jumping into the world of networking again.

“Shropshire Chamber’s cross-sector connectivity allows us to play a serious and constructive part in this debate – and we’re determined to keep mental health right at the top of the agenda.

“We would urge every single employer in the county to sign up to this charter to help achieve these goals.”

The charter has been developed in conjunction with Merulae, the bespoke training and counselling services, based in Shrewsbury.

Founder and counsellor Wendy Brook says: “Signing the charter is an important first step in starting the conversation around mental health, and in doing so reducing the stigma and discrimination which is a barrier for many in accessing the support or help they need.

“It is the beginning of a vital journey which has the potential to reduce sickness, absence and presenteeism, and reduce the hefty costs to the business and the person.”

By making the pledge, businesses will be promising to open up the mental health debate, and provide a structure which promotes awareness, and access to training and support.

Mr Sheehan adds: “Everyone in the workplace has a right to an environment which promotes good mental health and wellbeing.

“And from an employer’s point of view, it’s a win-win situation, because a happy employee is a more loyal and productive employee.

“We are not expecting Shropshire employers to suddenly become mental health professionals; often, it’s simply a case of creating an environment in which staff feel confident and comfortable enough to talk through their issues, with suitable training and support available.”

On a similar theme, Michael Lloyd from Market Drayton has turned the idea into a new business, called Mental Health Charter.

He explains: “I have always been a bit of an entrepreneur with ideas going round in my head what I can do next.

“Lockdown has given me lots of spare time, and with my passion for reducing the stigma around mental health, I designed and created a charter for employers across the UK to sign, to show their commitment on awareness within the workplace.

“Now more than ever we need to show our employees their mental health and wellbeing is of most importance to any business.”

Michael’s venture has the backing of actress Kate Ford, who plays Tracy Barlow in Coronation Street, who describes it in a video on his website as ‘an amazing thing’.

He has designed different memberships and levels of support, with bronze, silver and gold level packages, plus induction training and promotional material.

The business is also offering mental health first aid training, which is CPC accredited, annual audits, and direct links to mental health charities around the country.

And there are plans for awards evenings to recognise what Michael describes as ‘the greatest employers who have shown full commitment to the charter’.

“All employers in the UK will be contacted about signing the charter, and we are hopeful we will have a good proportion of business sign the charter to show support for their employees.

“Not only does it show great support for current employees, but shows potential employees their support and commitment to their employees mental health and wellbeing.”