Among all the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, related lockdowns and workplace closures, one thing has remained consistent – the toll taken on our mental health.

In fact, almost half of the population* has reported feeling worried or stressed since the pandemic started. This is unsurprising given the disruption caused to our daily lives. Work, relationships and general health have been thrown into question and for many of us, it feels like we have no control.

As we head into the winter months – with no signs of stability in government measures in sight – it’s set to get more difficult. Changes in daylight, sun and how we spend our time further impact our mental wellbeing, causing us to feel tired, unmotivated and generally down.

With these additional stresses to contend with, it’s more important than ever employers provide targeted support, as staff face continuous changes.

The mental health impact of uncertainty

As humans, we’re programmed to crave a framework of routine and fear the unknown.

Disruption and high levels of uncertainty trigger our threat response. We go into ‘fight or flight’ mode – a heightened state of stress. This is helpful in short bursts – keeping us alert and helping us perform under pressure – however, when this stress persists, it can take its toll on our physical and mental wellbeing.

Long-term physical symptoms include impaired memory and digestive functioning, diabetes and impacting our cardiovascular system, plus mental health problems including anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive type difficulties.

If we can settle into a routine and know what to expect each day, this extreme stress response is short circuited.

The difficulty facing many of us now is that this uncertainty seems indeterminate. Many of us are working remotely, with unstructured days, no concrete return date to the workplace, and contending with other worries, like ‘will we be in lockdown again?’ and even ‘will I keep my job?’ and ‘will I be able to provide for my family?’

The need to challenge unhelpful thinking

With so much uncertainty surrounding the workplace and our daily lives that is beyond our control, it’s important employees can challenge unhelpful thinking if they’re to cope.

Resilience refers to our ability to learn and quickly recover from periods of stress and is a key skill in coping with uncertainty – helping us to notice when we are becoming distressed and return to a state of relative ‘normality’ in the face of adversity.

While we may never learn to fully embrace uncertainty, adopting resilient habits helps us prevent instances of stress from spiralling out of control and having a long term impact on our physical and emotional wellbeing.

For example, psychologists recommend present moment awareness techniques, to prevent feelings of stress exacerbating. In stressful times – for example, when employees receive worrying news – they may begin to experience increased heart rate, faster breathing and nausea. There is a tendency to focus internally on these symptoms in isolation.

When we feel these sensations forming, it’s recommended to externally focus on the present – what we can physically hear, feel and see. This helps us break the cycle of unhelpful or catastrophising thoughts, internal focus of attention and be in the current moment instead.

It can also help to write down our common unhelpful thought patterns. When we experience stress or anxiety, writing down the trigger, associated thoughts and how they made us feel helps us understand the impact of unhelpful thinking patterns we often repeat. This helps us to begin to break these patterns.

Employers should let their team know they understand working life is more challenging at the moment…a message that ‘It is OK not to be OK’… and encourage them to take a step away from the desk for a few minutes when they feel overwhelmed, to practice some of these coping techniques.

Which mental health services will provide significant support?

Employee benefits propositions should be designed and updated to provide employees with access to the support and tools across a whole continuum of mental health need, from Enhancement (for employees who are mental fit but want to be mentally fitter) to Prevention (support for staff during stressful or uncertain periods to prevent mental ill health) to Treatment (support and interventions for staff experiencing mental ill health).

Providing access to speak with a specialist can assist employees in enhancing mental fitness and learning resilient behaviours. If face-to-face meetings are not currently possible, organise telephone or video call sessions, either group or one to one, which allow individuals to ask questions and also let specialists act on cues like tonality, rate of speech and language.

Offering self-help online cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) for individuals with milder symptoms of mental ill health and/or stress is an effective way of supporting employees (an evidence based treatment for a wide range of types of mental ill health).

This lets users work through modules at their own pace, learn coping techniques and revisit relevant topics. This is helpful for those who don’t feel comfortable speaking openly about their difficulties.

Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) or the provision of cognitive behaviour therapy (an evidence based treatment for a wide range of types of mental ill health) offer direct and confidential access to a mental health expert with whom staff can speak about their worries and who can coach them through coping strategies like mindfulness techniques and challenging unhelpful thinking. These interventions can be delivered face to face, or remotely via video conferencing depending on government advice.

In times like these, where there is seemingly no light at the end of the tunnel, it’s important employees feel their problems are being understood and those around them are equipped to provide support, or at the very least, listen and then signpost to appropriate support. As such employers need to ensure that managers and leaders are aware of all the forms of support available.

Consider offering emotional literacy training to employees too, which equips them with the skills to host conversations around mental health and a common language to discuss their feelings.

It is important to promote the support on offer to staff regularly through communication channels appropriate to the employees. This may be email.

However, communication campaigns are also effective to promote support to harder to reach employees which can be done through physical poster campaigns and QR codes.  It can be helpful to include personalised messages from managers and directors about the support they’ve accessed and how it helped them.

This normalises the conversation around mental health for all employees and encourages buy-in to support by showing even those in leadership positions sometimes need help.