Covid and mental health - a guide for union reps (May 2021)



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Covid-19 is a new virus and its long-term impact is not yet known, but in a short time its impact has been enormous, fundamentally changing how we live, work and socialise. At a TUC event to mark International Workers Memorial Day (IWMD) on 28 April 2021, Labour’s shadow secretary of state for employment rights Andy McDonald reported that the UK has one of the highest death rates in the world, and one of the most severe economic crises of any major economy. He said the government has failed at every stage of the pandemic to take workplace safety seriously enough.

By IWMD 2021, there had been more than 150,000 Covid-19 related deaths in the UK. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that in the previous month more than a million people were experiencing long Covid, which is when symptoms persist for more than four weeks after the first suspected Covid-19 episode. Over the four-week period ending 6 March 2021, an estimated 1.1 million people in the UK reported experiencing long Covid.

There is also mounting evidence that the pandemic has massively worsened an existing mental health crisis in the UK. Describing the situation as an emergency, the MIND charity predicted that Covid will leave a deep and lasting scar on the mental health of millions in this country. “The devastating loss of life, the impact of lockdown and loneliness, and the inevitable recession that lies ahead will affect all of us,” it said.

ONS figures released in May 2021 showed that around one in five (21%) adults experienced some form of depression in early 2021. This is an increase since November 2020, when the figure was 19%, and more than double that observed before the pandemic (10%).

The cross party parliamentary group on coronavirus released an interim report in December 2020 showing that Covid-19 “has had profound consequences for individuals’ mental health”. It outlined particular concerns about the mental health of key workers, who it said urgently need support, and highlighted higher levels of depression among people from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds.

Meanwhile, levels of work-related stress, anxiety and depression were already at a 20-year high even before the pandemic took hold in the UK. According to the latest Health and Safety Executive (HSE) annual injury and ill-health statistics for Great Britain, some 828,000 workers were suffering from new or long-standing work-related stress, depression or anxiety, a sharp rise on the previous year.

The HSE statistics cover the period from April 2019 to March 2020, so were largely before the major disruption caused by the pandemic. In April 2021, the safety watchdog urged employers to review the stress-causing factors in their workplaces and the work their employees do as “the last year has presented new challenges that have never been faced before, and which may affect the workplaces of the UK for some time to come”.

In fact, the Hazards Campaign says the HSE figures vastly underestimate the problem. It’s Whole Story report found that some 2.3 million people are suffering from work-related mental health problems. The TUC also points out that many disabled workers have long-term mental health problems which are not work-related but can be exacerbated by working conditions.

Union surveys also suggest the pandemic has driven levels of work-related stress, depression and anxiety still higher. In April 2021, for example, the general Unite union reported a Covid-related mental health “epidemic” after a UK and Ireland-wide survey of 1,400 workplace reps found 83% are dealing with an increase in members reporting mental health-related problems.

TUC research indicates that the biggest causes of stress at work are: workload (74%); cuts in staff (53%); change at work (44%) and long hours (39%). The pandemic has worsened, and added to, all these issues. Workers are struggling with Covid infection, fear of infection and passing on the virus to family and friends, bereavement and the witnessing of so much death, particularly in health and social care. Many are trying to deal with unmanageable workloads and have had to deal with the impossibility of juggling work with care and home-schooling responsibilities. Others, including large numbers of young workers, are facing job insecurity and low pay. While many homeworkers battle loneliness and isolation, those on the frontline of health and social care, retail and transport are facing increased violence and abuse as a result of the pandemic. All these issues have taken a huge toll on workers’ mental health.

The TUC’s latest biennial union health and safety survey of over 2,000 safety reps found that stress is once again “far and away” their top health and safety concern. This year, the survey asked an additional set of questions specifically related to the Covid crisis and found a massive 65% of reps said they had dealt with an increase in mental health issues during the pandemic. A report by public sector union UNISON, Worry in Mind, (see page 7) showed some workers were experiencing suicidal thoughts, suffering symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and panic attacks, and feeling helpless when supporting patients. Some quit their jobs altogether.

This booklet is an action guide for union reps, setting out what they can do to ensure that employers tackle these problems and provide support for workers affected. It draws on information, advice, guidance, research and campaigning material from the TUC, Wales TUC and Scottish TUC (STUC) and trade unions, as well as organisations including the HSE, the BEIS business department, the EHRC equality and human rights commission, and the CIPD HR professionals’ body.

It also highlights examples of how union reps and branches have negotiated or taken action to secure improvements. It sets out examples of employer good practice on preventing or reducing Covid-related mental ill health at work — including for those working from home — and supporting workers suffering from Covid-related mental health problems. The following chapters set out:

• how Covid has worsened the work-related mental health crisis — examining evidence from union, academic, government and other research across different sectors;

• the consequences of poor mental health at work — including sickness absence and job loss, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and work-related suicide;

• making the business case for taking action;

• how reps can ensure employers take action to prevent or reduce the impact of Covid on workers’ mental health, using health and safety law and the HSE Stress Management Standards;

• how reps can use equality law to make sure employers provide support for members suffering from Covid-related mental health problems — including reasonable adjustments, reasonable adjustment passports, and changes to sickness absence policies; and

• what a mentally healthy workplace looks like — including the importance of good health and safety at work and decent pay and conditions.

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