COVID-19 - is mental health on the agenda?

12 May 2020

The physical effects of COVID19 are well known and well documented. As are the key measures to minimise the risks namely social distancing and hand washing. But what about the psychological or mental health effects which are perhaps less easy to identify and manage, bearing in mind that each one of us is feeling something different in response to the pandemic?

Employers have a responsibility for the wellbeing of their employees. It is important to note that this does not just equate to ensuring that work does not directly cause a mental health issue but also that it does not aggravate one, and employers have a legal responsibility to help their employees in this regard.

Long before COVID19, mental health in the workplace was recognised as an area requiring improvement and as a result, the Government commissioned the Stevenson Farmer “Thriving at Work” Review in 2017. Further, the HSE had identified work related stress and related mental health issues as one of its three health priorities. Therefore, we can expect this to be an area of focus for the HSE in any future inspections / investigations it carries out.

Against this backdrop, with more of us working from home than ever before, which means more lone working; and with employees operating in an unprecedented environment, what can employers do to support their employees’ mental wellbeing?

Work-related mental health issues must to be assessed to measure the levels of risk to employees.

Regular contact with employees is necessary to do this. Where employees are working from home, procedures should be put in place to keep direct contact with them so that signs of stress can be recognised as early as possible.

Coincidentally, the HSE had issued guidance on how employers can protect lone workers and control the risks of working alone at the end of March this year. This specifically addresses stress, mental health and wellbeing. All employers should have regard to this where they have employees working from home, or alone in other environments.  

Where a risk is identified, steps must be taken to remove it or reduce it as far as reasonably practicable.

Employers are having to think more dynamically about what they can do to assist employees, many of whom are currently trying to work alongside other commitments such as childcare. Steps may include flexible working, providing resources and / or equipment to assist alternative working arrangements, setting boundaries between working and non-working hours and encouraging staff to discuss their concerns and well being.

The appropriate measures are likely to vary from business to business, and from employee to employee. However, employers should be able to demonstrate the measures they have considered and why particular steps have been chosen in any given case.

  1. Have an emergency point of contact which is shared with employees so that they know how to get help if they need it
  2. Keep evidence of assessments made and actions taken

With virtual communication over Zoom, Skype and other sources becoming more and more common, it is as important as ever to keep records of discussions to evidence assessments carried out and actions taken so that these can be justified at a later date if need be.

Statistics indicate that one in four of us will have a mental health issue at some point. Whilst we are at an early stage of dealing with COVID19 we already know it will have far reaching consequence and, one thing which can be said with confidence is that it will have an impact on the stress and anxiety levels for the vast majority of us. With this in mind, if employers are not already alive to this issue, it should be added to the agenda at the highest level and in summary, employers should:

  • Form a mental health at work plan.

  • Promote communications to identify potential risks to employees.

  • Implement actions and provide a mechanism to monitor these, together with the outcomes.

  • Raise awareness and reduce stigma of mental health issues.

  • Keep documented records.

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Disclaimer: This document does not present a complete or comprehensive statement of the law, nor does it constitute legal advice. It is intended only to highlight issues that may be of interest to customers of BLM. Specialist legal advice should always be sought in any particular case.

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