Considering Samaritans’ findings on the mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic from an employer’s point of view

The toll of the COVID-19 pandemic on the nation’s mental health is significant, and the full extent of the impact will not be known for some time yet. While most people will not remain untouched by stress, anxiety, or feelings of isolation related to the pandemic, for example, it’s clear that for those who had already been struggling with their mental health, the effects are particularly acute.

Samaritans has provided emotional support over 1.2 million times since March 2020. Taking insights drawn from its helpline usage over this time, it has published a series of brief updates on their findings of the impacts of the pandemic on the mental health of some key groups that they serve, and who had already been identified as particularly high-risk of self-harm and suicide prior to March 2020. These are middle-aged men, young people (aged 16 to 24) who self-harm, and people with pre-existing mental health conditions.

The following is a summary of some of Samaritans’ main insights from across these three key groups:

Middle-Aged Men:

  • Middle-aged men continue to have the highest suicide rate of any group in England.
  • Unemployment, debt, relationship breakdowns, and substance misuse are key risk factors for poor mental health among this group, and have all been exacerbated by COVID-19
  • Becoming unemployed can leave men disconnected and unsure of what to do with their time, creating or exacerbating risk factors for poor mental health, such as social isolation, rumination, or substance misuse.
  • Older middle-aged men are among the worst affected by the pandemic; they are more likely to have been furloughed or lost their jobs than those in their mid-career.

Younger People:

  • Rates of self-harm have been rising for two decades in England, especially among young people (aged 16-24). Self-harm is a risk factor for suicide.
  • It’s well known that having a job – particularly a “good” job can be a protective factor against poor mental health. Conversely, unemployment and poor mental health are closely linked and operate in a sort of vicious cycle. The economic impacts of COVID-19 on the jobs market, have disproportionately impacted young people, with those aged 16-24 having experienced the biggest drop in employment compared to other age groups; 306,000 fewer young people were in work in July-September, compared to before the pandemic.
  • During the first lockdown, the proportion of young people who lost their main job was three times the figure across all employees resulting in under-25s accounting for a third of all new Universal Credit applications.
  • The number of young people feeling lonely has tripled in recent months, and they were the most likely group to experience loneliness during lockdown, which can create further damage to their mental health and wellbeing.

People with pre-existing mental health conditions:

  • There are around 7.5 million people in England with a common mental health condition such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and anxiety, and a further 1 per cent of the population has a severe mental illness (SMI), such as schizophrenia or bipolar effective disorder.
  • It is expected that poor mental health will increase – in terms of prevalence, but also in terms of the severity of issues. The Centre for Mental Health suggests that up to ten million people will require new or additional mental health support as a result of the pandemic – a third of them with new conditions. Predominantly the need is likely to be related to moderate to severe anxiety or depression, and also trauma-related symptoms.
  • Financial insecurity: the Samaritans policy brief highlights the “strong and persistent connection between poor mental health and financial insecurity”. Even if individuals have retained their job during the crisis, they may be experiencing household financial pressures if, for example, their partner has lost their source of income. There is also the additional pressure of being the sole breadwinner.

Supporting timely access to support

Making sure that those who need support are able to access it in a timely manner is crucial to being able to manage common mental health issues most effectively and before they become more severe.

Employers have an important role to play in signposting employees and others working on their sites to services, such as Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), and employer-provided counselling or therapy services. Services provided by the NHS and voluntary sector are still open, but demand is increasing and where possible and available, employers could look to signpost staff to internally-provided support in the first instance.

A full list of services commissioned by the City of London Corporation and available to City workers, such as the City Wellbeing Centre, Dragon Café in the City, and City Advice, can be found here.

Stigma around mental health remains a barrier to accessing services when they are needed, and when they may be able to provide the most effective support or treatment. It’s therefore still crucial for employers to continue to normalise conversations among their workforce about poor mental health, and mental wellbeing, and to encourage individuals to seek help when they are struggling.

At the most acute and severe end of the mental health spectrum is suicide. Being able to talk openly about suicide can help to identify when someone may be considering taking their own life, and the earlier this is done, the sooner they can be assisted to get the help that they need.

The City Corporation’s Business Healthy has been delivering regular Suicide Prevention Awareness sessions to the City’s business community for the past five years. These short sessions are well-received and delivered in partnership with Samaritans and the City of London Police. The next session will be taking place on Thursday 25 February, Places are extremely limited; to find out more and register your interest, please visit the Eventbrite page.