THE LONG READ
After the damages of Covid
In this issue’s long read Jody Whitehill looks at Covid, mental health and the issues around returning to work
“Reps have had to deal with additional and quite complex issues, some of which are completely new to us all, like Covid vaccinations and lateral flow testing in workplaces. This puts reps under further strain and can affect their own mental health”
Rob Miguel Unite health and safety officer
During mental health awareness week in May, the Centre for Mental Health warned the government that the Covid-19 pandemic will cast a five year shadow over the nation’s mental health.
Previously the Centre forecast that around 10m people in England will need support for their mental health as a direct result of the pandemic.
Based on an analysis of over 200 studies from around the world it shows that the number of people needing mental health support is three times higher than the current capacity of mental health services in England.
It is no revelation that the past year has been tough on everyone’s mental health.
A survey by TalkOut revealed that more than half of employees hadn’t received any mental health support from their employers since the pandemic began over a year ago and 85 per cent felt it wasn’t a priority for their employer during the pandemic.
“Employers must be prepared for workers to need more understanding and support. Most good employers will have a triage system in place for mental health concerns,” said Rob Miguel, Unite national officer for health and safety.
“It needs look at what is contributing towards poor mental health, what support is needed and then signpost staff to the right place to get help. Leaving staff to struggle alone is simply not good enough,” he added.
Unite survey – increase in mental health problems
A health and safety-focused survey of 1,400 Unite reps, from across all sectors of the economy, found that 83 per cent are dealing with an increase in members reporting mental health-related problems.
Mental health issues also came top of workers’ concerns during a similar survey last year. However, there has been a huge 18-point increase from the 65 per cent reported in 2020.
“Reps have had to deal with additional and quite complex issues, some of which are completely new to us all, like Covid vaccinations and lateral flow testing in workplaces,” said Miguel.
“This puts reps under further strain and can affect their own mental health,” he added.
The survey also highlighted a 14 per cent increase in dealing with bullying – possibly an indication of managers (particularly line managers) experiencing difficulties in managing remotely with a greater proportion of workers working from home.
Some professions were already notorious for a culture of poor mental health long before Covid. Long-haul drivers are especially vulnerable – working long hours away from home and in isolation, one in four construction workers had considered suicide – an issue that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Jobs with shift work can disrupt the body clock, affect sleep, impact social and family life and consequently mental health.
In May, senior figures from across the road haulage industry met with the mental health charity Mates in Mind, Unite assistant general secretary Diana Holland, and Unite national officers Matt Draper and Adrian Jones, to look at ways to tackle the mental health challenges within the sector.
Line blurred between work and home
People who have worked from home during the entire pandemic have also suffered. Many feeling isolated and cut off, with limited contact with colleagues and the loss of feeling like part of a team. The line between home and work has blurred and many people working from home now find it difficult to switch off.
Ireland is the latest country to sign up to the Right to Disconnect – a code of practice that requires companies with more than 50 employees to set specific polices to help staff switch off outside of their contracted working hours.
There are three rights protected in the Code of Practice – the right of an employee to not have to routinely perform work outside their normal working hours, the right not to be penalised for refusing to attend to work matters outside of normal working hours and the duty to respect another person's right to disconnect.
Brendan Ogle, senior officer for Unite in the Republic of Ireland explains why the Right to Disconnect does not go far enough to protect workers.
“A demarcation between work and home life is needed for mental health and family purposes – the problem of work encroaching on personal time is increasing in the era of technology, even without the current pandemic,” he said.
“We fully support the idea behind the Right to Disconnect. The idea began with Irish trade unions two and a half years ago – a small trade union called the Financial Services Union was the first to recognise a need for such legislation,” he added.
He went on to explain that currently the measures are weak on enforceability.
“With a statutory code of practice, which we do have in some areas of employment regulation, the burden falls on the employer to ensure that workers are not contacted about work outside of their contracted hours. However with a non-statutory code of practice, which is more common, the burden falls on the worker to make a complaint about excessive hours or work creeping into home life. If anything this is then another added pressure to the worker,” he said
“Our members in the Republic of Ireland have the lowest trade union rights out of all Unite members and trade unions members within their EU peer group [the ROI remains part of the EU]. We fully support the code of practice and think it is needed now more than ever, however while there is no legal obligation to the employer it is not strong enough to truly protect workers,” he added.
With the majority of Coronavirus restrictions to be lifted from June 21 many people who have been working from home may also have anxiety over returning to the workplace. People’s social circles have reduced drastically and the thought of having to interact with so many people all of a sudden could be very overwhelming.
“Home lives could have changed drastically,” warns Miguel. “People may not have the same childcare support in place, a partner may have lost their job potentially halving the household income and making travel unaffordable, people may still have ill health from having had Covid or could be caring for someone who has been ill or may have suffered bereavements,” he added.
“A demarcation between work and home life is needed for mental health and family purposes – the problem of work encroaching on personal time is increasing in the era of technology, even without the current pandemic”
Unite’s senior officer in the ROI
Huge surge in GP appointments
Jackie Applebee, a GP in Tower Hamlets and Chair of Doctors in Unite, reports a huge surge in people attending her practice seeking help for mental health issues.
“Appointments from people with a pervious history of mental health issues have ramped up as a result of the past year but we are also seeing people who have never suffered with their mental health before coming to us too,” she said.
“People are scared to go out or think they still shouldn’t go out and cabin fever or lack of routine is very damaging. Work is encroaching on people’s home life, some people are working in isolation or haven’t seen their colleagues in over a year. We rely on relationships to see us through tough times and without them any negative feeling is magnified,” she added.
Everyone’s situation will be different and some people will be keen for a return to ‘normality’, to get back to the workplace and to see people again. For others the flexibility that home working has leant them may have made home life much easier.
“It is down to line managers to assess individuals and decide what course of action must be taken to support them during the return to workplace working,” said Miguel.
“There will be physical attributes like whether they shielded during the pandemic and any underlying health conditions they may have, like diabetes or a heart condition. But mental health must also be taken into consideration,” he added.
Risk of further NHS cuts?
The full after effects of the pandemic are yet to be felt, including its impact on people’s mental health. Dr Applebee worries that our NHS could be at risk of further cuts to fund the economic aftermath of Covid.
“At the moment we are still in the Covid mind frame. But as we begin to emerge we will see the cut backs made to pay for Covid,” she said.
“My fear is that it will come from mental health services, which are already critically underfunded and unable to cope with demands. I worry that we are in for another period of austerity and it looks bleak,” she added.
Dr Applebee confirms having seen more young people seeking mental health support in her practice than before Covid times.
“Young people are anxious about keeping their jobs and those on furlough are worried they won’t be able to pay their rent when it ends,” she said. “My practice is in London’s East End and many of my patients work in hospitality. A sector which has probably been hit the hardest and suffered many job losses,” she added.
Other sectors have been more fortunate and workers will be returning to their workplace and wondering what, if any, adjustments will be made to allow for an easier transition back into workplace working.
Dr Applebee says more flexibility from employers would go a long way.
“Bosses need to allow people to work from home if they want to and can do their job as easily at home,” she said.
“If they are coming into the workplace then there needs to be proper social distancing to keep staff and customers safe,” she added.
“People are scared to go out or think they still shouldn’t go out and cabin fever or lack of routine is very damaging. Work is encroaching on people’s home life, some people are working in isolation or haven’t seen their colleagues in over a year. We rely on relationships to see us through tough times and without them any negative feeling is magnified”
Dr Jackie Applebee
GP and chair of Doctors in Unite
“People may not have the same childcare support in place, a partner may have lost their job potentially halving the household income and making travel unaffordable, people may still have ill health from having had Covid or could be caring for someone who has been ill or may have suffered bereavements”
Unite health and safety officer
She fears it’s far too soon to be lifting Covid restrictions such as mask wearing.
“Covid is transmitted much more easily indoors,” she said. “I think people should be wearing a face mask for the foreseeable future. It is proven to reduce the risk of transmission. Workplaces should also continue with social distancing and make sure that the building is properly ventilated,” she added.
As a dedicated trade union member Dr Applebee urges people to join a union for the right to make demands collectively and ensure that their workplace is safe.
“Workplaces should publish their ventilation systems and how it disposes of expired air,” she said.
“It is vital that it is extracted from the building and not just blown around inside or it is potentially spreading the virus about the workplace. They need to be clear about how they’re going to monitor that,” she added.
Some of these practices will simply be too costly for smaller workplaces. Especially those who have suffered huge financial losses already because of Covid – so is June 21 is simply too soon to expect things to go back to ‘normal’?
“The government are undeniably rushing people back to work and prioritising the economy before people’s health,” said Dr Applebee. “They are maybe being slightly more cautious this time after being caught out twice before. Eat out to help out in the summer was just a hot bed of transmission. Covid isn’t dictated to by date,” she added.
Rob Miguel says that the government must be led by the data before lifting Covid restrictions any further and that despite recently having our first day with no Covid deaths, the new Indian variant poses a serious threat.
“We don’t know enough about the Indian variant,” agreed Dr Applebee. “Like if it is more transmissible or if the vaccine works against it. We need more data before we can reassure people that the vaccine will protect them from it,” she added.
Scientific advisers think it could be as much as 50 per cent more transmissible and responsible for the majority of new cases in England with particular clusters in the North West and London. It’s been pointed out some of the worst-affected areas have very low proportions of residents who are able to work from home.
“We need to be cautious and not allow things to get to where they were in January,” warns Dr Applebee. “The NHS was completely overwhelmed. The Royal London in Whitechapel was entirely Covid wards. Every other treatment was put on hold. Waiting lists for everything else goes up and this too has a knock on effect on people’s mental health. If you are waiting for a hip replacement for example, you are waiting in pain with no end in sight,” she added.
As of May 17 pubs, cafes and restaurants in many parts of the UK are now able to welcome customers back indoors and six people or two households can meet indoors in England, with overnight stays allowed, so it won’t be long before we could see the impact of indoor settings on case rates around the UK.
By Jody Whitehill
WORRIED ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH OR SAFETY ISSUES?
Remember that in Unite you are not alone. If you are concerned about Covid safety in your own workplace or have concerns about your own or a colleague’s mental health, please speak to your workplace rep who is trained to help you in these instances.
See Unite’s website to contact your regional office for advice if you don’t who your rep is.
Every Mind Matters is an NHS mental health awareness campaign that also provides a free and personalised plan to help people feel in control of their own mental health. It also has a section on children and young people’s mental health too.