Employers should focus on staff wellbeing more as restrictions ease, argues Suzanne Marshall RN, Clinical Governance Officer at FirstCare.
Levels of optimism are on the rise as the vaccine rollout continues and the Government delivers its roadmap out of a third (and hopefully final) lockdown.
But while many of us look to brighter days ahead, it's crucial that we don't ignore the mental health of those key workers who have kept the country's wheels turning throughout the pandemic. FirstCare data for the transport and logistics sector showed clear spikes in workers needing time off due to mental health troubles when restrictions were eased following previous lockdowns.
The period from mid-May to early July 2020 - when people were encouraged back to work, schools returned, and shops and hospitality venues reopened following the first lockdown - saw a 57% increase in the number of workers in the sector affected by poor mental health.
The word 'unprecedented' has become synonymous with circumstances of the past year, but the fact is that the current situation is no longer unprecedented, and as we leave the third lockdown we should act upon what we learned from the previous two.
As restrictions are set to lift once again and increasing numbers of commuters will return to the roads and rails, it's important that proactive businesses use this time to plan ahead and monitor employee wellbeing to identify and resolve burgeoning issues.
The transport sector has long been associated with mental health challenges, from bus drivers dealing with aggressive road users, to railway workers faced with the devastatingly high numbers of deaths that occur on the tracks each week. It's little surprise that lost working days due to poor mental health more than doubled in the first quarter of 2020, when the effects of a worldwide pandemic were added to the already bubbling pot. Public transport workers have described daily abuse: "it feels like people just don't care if we live or die" and "working relentlessly [...] to cover sick leave and vulnerable staff."
The sector has seen a 24% increase in unplanned leave due to poor mental health (more than 610,000 days across the UK) since the start of the pandemic, and forward-thinking businesses are working hard to redress this rise and proactively avoid another spike following lockdown 3.0.
At our webinar for the latest CIPD conference, Annette Wheelan, HT Business Partner at Transpennine Express (TPE) commented; "One of the - I suppose - benefits of very few people travelling on our train services [during lockdown] has meant that the management team have had lots of time to talk to the employees." The company hosted a series of e-learning sessions on mental health, sharing the best sources of support for employees, and its staff survey in July returned impressive positivity scores of 7.7/10; a reflection of its efforts to consult and support workers.
TPE workers also have access to 24/7 medical support via FirstCare's nurse service. In 2020, 26% of the life-threatening 'clinical incidents' or nurse team handled were related to mental health, highlighting the importance of early intervention such as this.
It's clear that there are important ongoing discussions to be had, and TPE is just one of many responsible companies that have been using this period of reduced demand to focus on speaking to staff and implementing improved mental health measures.
With the timeline for leaving lockdown laid out - there's still time for others to do the same. The benefits of improving wellbeing provision will carry through the transitional period and into the 'new normal.' Then we can all look forward to brighter days ahead.