It’s been a year of unpleasant statistics. Each of the UK’s four nations have spent more than six months under full lockdown restrictions. In January 2021, the UK became the first in Europe to pass the grim milestone of 100,000 COVID-19 deaths. Hushed streets, empty offices and shuttered shops have become commonplace.
It will be years until the full impact of the pandemic is understood, and there are likely to be more twists in the road yet, despite the success of the vaccination programme. However, some of the long-term consequences have certainly begun to emerge. I believe there are three major trends that we must acknowledge and tackle as we move forward.
Long lasting mental health effects
One of the biggest secondary impacts of the disease has been on mental health; less than a year into the pandemic, mental health took the lead when it came to published papers and preprints on the effects of COVID-19.0
Throughout the pandemic, 3 in 5 people across the UK have reported a deterioration of their mental health throughout the pandemic. This has led to academics warning about a “tsunami” of psychological problems in the not too distant future. According to the Centre for Mental Health, up to 10 million people across England (equating to almost 20% of the population) will need either new or additional mental health support as a direct consequence of the pandemic. To further add to the problem, it has recently been discovered that those diagnosed with COVID-19 are more likely to develop depression.
Whilst the Government’s £500 million investment in mental health during the 2020 Spending Review was a welcome move, it is simply not enough to meet the high demand sparked by COVID-19. The mental health cost of the pandemic will lag behind that of the infectious disease, and the full impact will likely not be seen for two or three years. We would be extremely naive to assume that once lockdown is eased fully and normality returns, our mental health will revert to pre-pandemic levels. As such, we must take more robust action now.
Employers must better support employees mental health
The workplace will be integral to the long term improvement of our mental health. Not only is there a strong moral case for employers to look after their staff’s physical and mental health, but the business benefits are well-documented too.
Research has shown that depression interferes with a person’s ability to complete physical job tasks about 20% of the time, and further reduces cognitive performance about 35% of the time. In turn, this leads to lost productivity, reduced turnover and increased absenteeism.
For a long time, employees have been urging their employers to show more compassion when it comes to mental health care. The strains of remote working during the pandemic – which has often been juggled with the likes of childcare and homeschooling – has provided a tipping point, where support has shifted from a nice-to-have to an essential. This is urgent, given four in 10 staff say they have experienced poor mental health related to work in the past year.
Organisations that do not take the time to re-evaluate and prioritise mental health support will not only miss the rewards of improved productivity and profitability following the pandemic, but will also not be doing right by their employees. Put simply, protecting mental health in times of unprecedented crisis is the right thing to do.
Digital solutions will unlock widespread access to support
With the ubiquity of smartphones, digital health solutions now provide arguably the best route to widespread reach. Not only can personalised, digital mental health solutions help reach the masses of people needing help, but they can also be distributed via employers, with the uptake and anonymised usage then used as a tool to measure mental health.
48% of employers already offer employees access to health and wellbeing apps, but this number is likely to grow in recognition of adoption across the UK during the pandemic. In the first month of the pandemic, downloads of the 15 most popular mental health apps increased by one third.
For mental health apps to achieve widespread adoption in the workplace, there are barriers that must be removed. They need to demonstrate a robust, ethics-first commitment, particularly important in those distributed through employers. Employees will simply give an app a wide berth if they sense that their individual data either isn’t safe or might be shared directly with their employer.
The mental health impacts of the pandemic will undoubtedly overshadow the direct physical impacts of COVID-19. It’s not too late to avert the worst of the crisis, and employers must recognise their importance in doing so.