The pandemic has been a challenge for managing mental wellbeing. Whilst many COVID-19 restrictions are no longer in place, there are still lingering effects that workers, human resources teams, and company heads face when managing mental health in the workplace.
In this article
The circumstances today in 2022, where most health restrictions across Britain have now ended, has provided a unique moment to study how workers’ mental health has changed since before 2020.
Therefore to dive deeper into this subject matter, we surveyed over 1,000 UK employees in companies with under 250 staff across a range of industries to see how mental wellbeing has shifted over the pandemic years. You can find the full methodology at the end of the article.
In this, the first part of our two-part series on mental health amongst the UK workforce, we look primarily at the wellbeing needs of staff since the onset of the pandemic, how working life has changed for people in small to midsize enterprises (SMEs), and commonly reported stress symptoms.
How has workplace mental health been affected by the pandemic?
Positive mental health has fallen by 14 percentage points since the start of the pandemic according to our survey. This was seen in our results as many fewer respondents reported their mental condition as either good or excellent when asked to self evaluate their mental health evolution.
During the earliest stages of the pandemic, those reporting good or excellent mental health fell from 66% before the COVID-19 outbreak to a low of 42%. This represented a larger 24-point drop in positive mental health during the pandemic’s first year.
However, positive mental health has since increased back to 52% in the intervening years.
It, therefore, appears that the decline in mental health seen during the onset of the pandemic persists to this day. Yet, it remains to be known whether levels of good mental health will rise back to their previous highs in the future if the situation continues to stabilise.
Changing workplaces, changing conditions
Companies and their employees have had to adapt to colossal change over the last two years. Not only in the way they worked but also in how they managed their daily lives in general.
As a result, many norms, once taken for granted, such as in-office attendance and personal interaction with colleagues, were restricted or stopped entirely.
This has both positive and negative outcomes for people working in SMEs.
In our data, a change we observed was an improvement for around 30% of workers in terms of flexible work hours. Additionally, a very similar number (29%) identified improvements to their work-life balance.
Whilst it’s clear to see that not all changes caused by the pandemic have been universally negative, important factors such as motivation and workplace connection have taken a hit.
24% of employees claimed that their job satisfaction had got worse since 2020 and another 26% found they had decreased motivation.
Not only that, connection to company culture and collaboration with colleagues has also got worse for around 23% and 22%, respectively, while only 10-16% of those asked reported improvements.
This shift could be partially explained by the social distancing rules enforced during the pandemic, as more people relied on remote work software to communicate with fellow team members.
COVID-19 has become a leading cause of stress for employees
A COVID-19 infection in the workplace was a source of concern for approximately a fifth of participants.
19% of those asked reported increased stress caused by fear of catching COVID-19 at work. It was among the top five causes of workplace stress, although it fell behind other more general workplace challenges.
Workplace factors caused indirectly by COVID-19 also played a part in the stress levels reported. Results showed that elements such as dealing with home and work life simultaneously contributed significantly to negative wellbeing effects.
This caused an additional 19% of respondents to feel the most stress. As they struggled to balance competing demands, this seems to imply that the pivot to working-from-home rules contributed in some ways to workplace tension for many employees during this phase of the pandemic.
However, in contrast, very few of those surveyed reported a concern about unsuitable or over-restrictive COVID-19 protocols. Here only 6% felt high levels of stress from poor COVID-19 protections at work and 5% felt protocols introduced at work went too far.
It can therefore be seen that COVID-19 did play its part in increasing stress. However, as we can see in the next section, other more common workplace challenges had a bigger influence on the results.
What caused SME workers the most stress?
Our study found that the most common causes of stress came from everyday workplace concerns.
When we asked respondents to pick the work-related factors that caused the highest levels of stress, the most common scenarios included:
- Being given too much work (40%)
- Lack of managerial support (21%)
- Boring or repetitive tasks (19%)
Hence, despite the challenges COVID-19 has caused to people’s mental health, it is still conventional daily frustrations that caused workers more overall stress during the course of the pandemic.
Mental health charity Mind outlines three ways to get a picture of mental health issues within your company:
- Consider key factors that affect workplace mental health, such as employee experience and organisational culture.
- Gather and leverage HR data to get a snapshot of the situation in your company to create an action plan.
- Ensure line managers foster a mental health responsive environment where employee concerns and struggles can be quickly communicated and supported.
Using employee engagement software allows managers to gather and check data on their workforce, which can help to identify the staff in need of extra support proactively.
What mental health symptoms are the most common?
Employees reported a range of stress symptoms and mental illness problems resulting from their working lives. These included both cognitive effects and physical symptoms.
One of the most common of these was problems sleeping, which nearly a third (31%) of our participants said they had experienced, followed by constant worrying, reported by 28%.
More worryingly, although 39% of respondents said they hadn’t experienced any of the mentioned symptoms as a result of work tasks, more than half (61%) of those surveyed reported suffering at least one of them.
The following graph details the five most common symptoms that UK employees experienced.
Workplace stress also contributed to performance issues such as difficulty concentrating and memory problems, noted by 24% and 18% respectively.
Similar effects of this stress were also reported by 14% who experienced feelings of being out of control and 10% who felt unable to perform daily tasks.
However, it’s worth considering these numbers could be even higher when taking into account those who didn’t wish to publicly admit they were struggling to maintain their daily tasks at work.
What does poor mental health cost business?
Maintaining good workplace mental health conditions for employees can save businesses thousands if not millions of pounds per year. It’s been calculated that poor mental health costs employers between £33 billion and £42 billion a year, according to Small Business Minister Paul Scully.
Not only that, but the minister estimated that employee mental health problems within the workforce cost the entire UK economy between £74 billion and £99 billion per year.
Lastly, and more seriously, around 16% of those surveyed reported experiencing physical mental health symptoms as a result of workplace stress.
According to the NHS, the most common physical symptoms of stress can include:
- Headaches or dizziness
- Muscle tension or pain
- Stomach problems
- Chest pain or a faster heartbeat
- Sexual problems
Therefore, our survey results show that the decrease in positive mental health since the pandemic began had very real symptomatic effects on people’s lives. Not only that, but the effects of untreated or unnoticed mental health are also serious and potentially damaging to business.
Some of these results could make stark reading for companies.
Firstly, it is clear that the pandemic has taken its toll on the British SME workforce’s mental health since COVID-19 restrictions were first introduced in 2020. Whilst stress wasn’t solely caused by COVID-19, the pandemic did play its part in worsening workplace mental health.
Workers have also shown a loss of motivation and connection with their employers; possibly as a result of remote working practices. Additionally, there have been some significant health consequences from this increase in workplace stress, which companies must be prepared to address.
Safeguarding workplace mental health and wellbeing is a key concern for HR stakeholders and, as our results show, having a strong plan to address this has never been more important.
In the second part of this series on workplace mental health, we will look at this in further detail. We will find out the ways companies tried to manage mental wellbeing and stress in the work environment and how employees responded to these.
Data for GetApp’s Mental Health Among SMEs Since COVID-19 survey was collected in February 2022. Results comprise responses from 1,031 UK participants. The criteria to be selected for this study is as follows:
- UK resident
- Aged over 18 years old and under 65 years old
- Employed by a company with under 250 employees
- Working as either a full-time or part-time employee
- Has not changed jobs between January 2020 and February 2022