How are you feeling?

Blog posts

9 Oct 2020

Zofia Bajorek

Dr Zofia Bajorek, Research Fellow 

I don’t know about you, but since working from home, I am finding this question doesn’t get asked as much, and replying over a video-conferencing call is much harder, as you just don’t have the social interaction that you would have if you were talking face-to-face.  And, on video-calls, you are extremely conscious that these meetings are usually time tabled to the minute, so the other person may not have the time to actually listen and respond to your answer anyway.

So, I am asking you:  How are you feeling?  How has the last six months been for you? And who do you talk to about this?

I have spoken quite openly about my mental health at work before, and have to say that these last six months have been tough.  As with everyone, the uncertainty with regards to transitioning to working from home, getting a ‘proper set-up’ arranged, making sure that I ‘leave my home office’ in the evening and switch-off, self-motivating myself, anxiety around contracting Covid-19 as I live with people in the vulnerable group, as well as caring, has taken its emotional and physical toll.  But on top of that – I really miss my colleagues.  I don’t only miss their intellectual input when I need to throw around some project ideas, or have an analysis query to tackle, but I miss our general catch-ups, the ‘what are you doing at the weekend?’ conversations, and when you are having a bad day, someone to confide in, have a cup of tea with (and maybe even some chocolate) and moan.  As research about the impact that lockdown has had on mental health and wellbeing has revealed, I know I am not alone in feeling like this.

IES’ own survey undertaken at the beginning of lockdown found that:

  • 33% of employees were frequently feeling isolated.
  • 50% were not happy with their current work-life balance.
  • 48% were working long and irregular hours.
  • 40% were not calm and relaxed.

However, as lockdown has continued for longer than expected and the second wave has led to the government recommending employees to work from home for the foreseeable future, concerns about mental health are becoming more apparent.  Recent research reported that:

  • 56% of UK workers have not received any mental health advice or support from their employer since the pandemic started in March.
  • 85% did not think that mental health had been their employer’s priority during the crisis.
  • 35% reported worse mental health now compared to the start of the pandemic.
  • 31% of employees were having fewer one-to-one meetings with their bosses compared to before the pandemic.

Even before Covid-19, there had been a proliferation of research encouraging workplaces to take mental health at work seriously.  The Thriving at Work report contained some hard hitting statistics regarding the state of health and wellbeing at work: 15% of people at work have symptoms of an existing mental health condition; 300,000 employees with long-term mental health problems losing their jobs each year (much higher than those with physical conditions); and the annual cost to employers of mental health related sickness absence varying between £33billion to £42 billion.  The report found that one of the main challenges that good intentioned workplaces face is what workplace interventions are effective – and what evidence is out there to support them.

IES has recently published some work on an intervention that may be important now more than ever: workplace counselling.  What is workplace counselling?  Put simply, it is counselling for an issue that has been caused by, or worsened, through work; it can help to address non-work issues (e.g. relationships, financial problems or health issues) which can spill over to work, and counselling that is aimed to have a positive impact on workplace behaviour.  Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) are often used synonymously with workplace counselling, but organisations may also have internal or external workplace counselling models.  Workplace counsellors have an understanding of organisational policies and practices that can have an influence on workforce wellbeing, and also understand challenges that employees may face.

With a policy emphasis on improving the mental health and wellbeing of employees (which may take a greater priority now as a result of Covid-19), there is evidence to suggest that workplace counselling could be well positioned as an intervention which could make a tangible contribution to this aim.  Research into workplace counselling has found that:

  • Employees who used workplace counselling will do so again.
  • Those who attended counselling reported improvements in their stress and wellbeing, and there have been positive results for employees with depression.
  • Counselling led to employees reporting more positive attitudes and positive related job outcomes (e.g. motivation, job satisfaction, commitment and workplace relationships with their colleagues).
  • HR Managers value workplace counselling and view it as an ‘invaluable benefit’ for their workforce.  However, in relation to this, for workplace counselling to be effective, the confidentiality of the process must be emphasised, and the service must be effectively promoted.
  • There is an economic value to workplace counselling, suggesting that EAPs provide a return-on-investment, even with low absence and utility figures.

The research concluded that if employees can access high quality, well implemented and trained workplace counsellors through their employers, then the evidence suggests that this can be an effective approach, both in terms of wellbeing and cost-effectiveness, which could improve workplace mental health outcomes.

It therefore seems more important than ever to promote workplace counselling services in your organisations if you have them.  Employees may be feeling isolated and lonely.  Line managers may be doing all they can to help staff discuss concerns, but some employees may not feel ready to open up to them for a number of reasons, including the fear of being a burden, or what it could mean for their future role potential if they disclosed a mental health concern.  A workplace counsellor may be best placed to provide an outlet for employees that they really need.     

This World Mental Health Day, I urge organisations to let employees know that there are services that are available, with trained professionals to ask employees how they are feeling, and most importantly, will listen to the response.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.