Why worker wellbeing is key to restarting the economy

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This is a column from Colin Webb, Managing Director of St Katherine’s Care in Lincoln.

Looking after the wellbeing of employees should be a priority for all businesses, but during the coronavirus crisis it is more important than ever. Since lockdown began our own workers have reported feeling more anxious as they struggle to deal with the threat of coronavirus and having to protect not only themselves but also their families and of course our customers: the people we care for.

However, I do not think these feelings can be attributed solely to their jobs as key workers. Being a care worker is a demanding job both emotionally and physically, and this has undoubtedly been exacerbated by the global pandemic, but thousands of other people of all ages and from all walks of life have reported similar feelings.

Self-isolation, introduced to protect us against infection, is bringing about its own problems, especially among the most vulnerable sectors in our society – the very people it is supposed to protect. The elderly and disabled, who were isolated to begin with, feel even more alone. Being ‘locked down’ in our homes is also a struggle for many families, especially if they had a challenging home life to begin with. Our home is meant to be a place of sanctuary, but for many people sadly this is not the case.

Millions of people are suffering the added stress of being furloughed or worse still made redundant and are struggling to even put food on the table, having to rely increasingly on food banks to feed their families. And frequent misinformation and rumours about the pandemic and deep uncertainty about how long it will last are making people feel anxious and hopeless about the future.

In a report to the UN, WHO’s mental health department director Devora Kestel warned: “The isolation, the fear, the uncertainty, the economic turmoil – they all cause or could cause psychological distress.

“The mental health and wellbeing of whole societies have been severely impacted by this crisis and are a priority to be addressed urgently.”

So, what can we do as employers to look after the mental health of our workers? First, we need to be able to identify current problems and potential risks within our organisations and then plan our response. Different people require different levels of support and those who are known to suffer with depression or anxiety, or even those who are shielding because of underlying health issues, should be monitored carefully. This may mean regular phone or video calls from someone in a senior position who they feel close to.

St Katherine’s Care promotes an ethos of care not just for our customers, whom we look after on a daily basis, but for also for our employees. We care for our carers! I encourage them to talk about their worries or concerns without fear of judgment and have an open-door policy. We have a very supportive management style and have bi-weekly meetings with all staff. People are aware that if they have any problem either at home or at work they can come and talk either to me or to our Office Manager Lindsey.

We recognise that maintaining healthy relationships with people you trust is important for your mental wellbeing and we encourage our managers to do the same. We have regular management meetings where I try to be as transparent as possible, so they feel well informed. They also have the freedom to make decisions – they do not have to run everything by me. I trust them (otherwise I wouldn’t have hired them) and as a result they feel empowered to do their job.

Healthcare workers, for obvious reasons, have been identified as one of the groups most at risk and we are responding to the need for increased psychological support by providing access to a clinical psychologist where needed. I have always seen the value of giving our workers access to professional help and I view it as an investment rather than a cost to the business.

I have also made sure they have everything they need to be able to do their job safely in terms of PPE. The acute shortage of PPE has been well documented, and I don’t want any of my employees to feel that they have to make a choice between looking after their own health or that of our customers. Rather than waiting for supplies from the Government we sourced our own supplies from a private company. We had to buy it at inflated prices, but we decided to put people before profits. As we begin to enter the recovery phase I think this is key to economic recovery. Businesses, whatever sector they are in, must put the health and wellbeing of their staff and customers first and foremost. Governments don’t restart economies; people do. As businesses we must make sure people feel confident enough to return to the workplace or the high street. By taking mental health seriously in the workplace we are looking after every business’ most import asset: its people.