Employers are being urged to act now on staff mental health as resurgent Covid-19 infections and numerous local restrictions take a mounting toll on the workforce.

According to a recent survey carried out by YouGov on behalf of SAMH, Scotland’s national mental health charity, 59 per cent of the country’s working population have found their job more stressful since the start of the pandemic. The problem is worse among younger age groups, with 64% aged 18 to 34 reporting an increase in stress.

In addition, 51% said they believed their employer could do more to support mental health issues in the workplace. Again, this figure rose in younger demographics, with 66% aged 18 to 34 agreeing that their employer could do more, compared to 43% aged 45 and above.

“There is no doubt that the changes to everyday life have had a resounding impact on the workplace, leaving many employers in the unprecedented position of having to implement and adopt new working practices overnight,” SAMH’s Julie-Ann Murphy said.

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“However, we’re now six months on, the virus is still spreading, and job security remains uncertain for a large number of people. Now is the time for businesses to prioritise the mental health and wellbeing of their employees.”

Psychotherapist Noel McDermott agrees, noting that lockdown triggered a spike in depression, anxiety, domestic violence and alcohol abuse that has yet to abate.

Though many workers remain isolated at home, Mr McDermott says this should not hinder employers from taking preventative measures to tackle what some figures have suggested to be a doubling in depression levels during lockdown. With those who can being told to continue working from home for the foreseeable future, employers need to raise awareness and encourage those who are struggling to come forward for help.

“Anxiety and depression are the most common mental health conditions, and can be treated to ensure they don’t become chronic and resistant to treatment,” he said. “Early diagnosis and intervention is the key to everything, whatever the illness.”

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Mr McDermott, the founder of London-based Mental Health Works, said employers also need to update their HR procedures, particularly around mental health and the coronavirus. Any member of staff that reports having had Covid-19, and then goes on to report absences related to mental health, should automatically be screened to ensure they have not developed post-viral syndrome.

This can lead to chronic fatigue with psychological symptoms that appear as depression and anxiety, but which do not respond to mental health treatment alone – medical and rehabilitation services such as physiotherapy are also required.

Choosing the right course of action is critical, Mr McDermott said, as is ensuring that staff in need of help are fully informed about accessing treatment through their GP.

“Periodic anxiety or depression lasting a short period of time is to be expected and will generally shift of their own accord if your mental hygiene/lifestyle is resilient,” he said. “If it continues for days or weeks, then there is likely to be a problem needing proper diagnosis and treatment.”

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Latest findings from the Government’s Covid-19 mental health surveillance report show a sharp deterioration in wellbeing during April, followed by some recovery since then. However, this has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels.

Looking at which groups had been disproportionately affected, it found that young adults and women were more likely to report worse mental health than older adults and men.

Ms Murphy of SAMH said: “It’s particularly concerning that younger age groups – those at the beginning or earlier in their careers – are those most likely to have increased levels of stress. This, coupled with a perceived lack of support from employers, highlights a real and present need for action.”

She added that SAMH is offering a range of Workplace Wellbeing training programmes to help employers support their staff.

The group also has several suggestions for those looking to take immediate steps, including the adoption of flexible working, active promotion of a healthy work-life balance, and appointing a dedicated mental health advocate within the workplace.