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COVID-19 Webinar 19: The Return to Work and New Ways of Working

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COVID-19 Webinar 19: The Return to Work and New Ways of Working

COVID-19 Webinar 19: The Return to Work and New Ways of Working

The Lancet Psychiatry, Mental Health Innovation Network, and United for Global Mental Health organises a series of regular webinars designed to provide policy makers and the wider health community with the latest evidence on the impact of COVID-19 on mental health and how to address it.

You can sign up to these webinars via this link, please email any questions to  All previous recordings can be found here.


25th August: The Return to Work and New Ways of Working

Poppy Jaman, Founder and CEO, City Mental Health Alliance


  • Manal Azzi, Senior Occupational Safety and Health Specialist, International Labour Organization

  • Aiysha Malik, Technical Officer, World Health Organization

  • Emma Jacobs, Work & Careers Columnist Financial Times

  • Charlotte Kirby, VP Global Strategic Relations, Salesforce


The recording of this webinar can be found here.


Key Messages: 

Summary of the discussion by Poppy Jaman, City Mental Health Alliance 

  1. Self-care and the Five Ways of Wellbeing: stay connected; give; be active; take notice; keep learning

  2. During the pandemic, everybody was asking “How are you?” This change has happened now, and we need to continue practicing it now

  3. Mental health leadership matters. Workplaces are cornerstones of society and we need every single person, regardless of seniority, to demonstrate mental health leadership so it is ingrained in the rebuild, and that the mental health conversation has a seat at the table.


The context – Poppy Jaman

Two years ago, the Lancet Commission reported that mental illness is on the rise in every country in the world, with a cost of $16tn to the global economy by 2030. 12bn working days a year are lost to mental illness and in the UK, mental ill health costs employers £45bn a year. This is data from before the pandemic and there is a consensus amongst businesses, mental health leaders and governments that the pandemic will intensify health inequalities and COVID-19 has caused a mental health crisis.


Demand for mental health services went up significantly during lockdown, and people accessed mental health support through a variety of methods: 49% through the NHS (in UK); 23% through private providers; 16% through charities; and 9% through their employers. Workplaces are part of the health ecosystem and are crucial in helping people get access to the help they need, at an earlier stage. Mentally healthy cultures create psychological safety and a positive mental health response from employers builds trust, increases morale and enhances business reputation. Workplaces are cornerstones of our society and in planning the next phase we, as employers, must be radical in our high expectations of our organisations, applying kindness and compassion as we are building back.


Poppy Jaman: What is the current evidence of the impact of COVID-19 on mental health in the workplace? 


Aiysha Malik, WHO

The predominant evidence of impact on workers comes from two sources during COVID-19: the health workforce and the general working population. This shows that we have a gap in the knowledge. From existing data, we know that health workers have been impacted with 1 in 5 experiencing symptoms of common mental health and 1 in 10, moderate to severe symptoms. For the general working population, COVID has had a profound effect on anxiety, depression and stress – this is across workers who have stopped working during the pandemic, as well as those who have found themselves working harder, for longer hours. COVID has also increased the likelihood of well-established risk factors occurring, such as unemployment/ and financial loss. A study across 100 countries shows that the impact is also not equal. 1 in 6 18-24 year olds are no longer working leading to poorer mental health outcomes, and women are broadly reporting worse mental health outcomes. COVID has amplified these inequalities.


Effort is now being put into collecting data and real-time monitoring, which is important for identifying trends and taking quick action. There is now emerging evidence (on a small scale) which shows that public health measures taken by workplaces to protect workers across sectors have had a positive influence on psychological distress and helped to maintain productivity.


Critically, in order to understand what works for mental health, productivity and company bottom lines, we need better, high quality data.


Poppy Jaman: What advice has the ILO been giving to help employers support the mental health of their employees during the pandemic?


Manal Azzi, ILO

Much of the work the ILO has been doing has focused on the loss of jobs due to the pandemic, alongside key work being done on helping employers manage the safety and health issues during the pandemic and return to work. This includes the prevention of risks of infection, as well as mental health and psychosocial risks. Different industries have had to respond in different ways, and for example, many of us have the ability work remotely, which comes with its own mental health concerns. We have looked at 10 elements, including the equipment provision for workers and whether the physical work environment was safe, particularly as sectors have seen different approaches to work dependent on their industries and management. For example, some sectors have seen themselves taking a leadership role in providing essential products and services, alongside an increased workload. We have also seen violence and harassment towards workers become more prevalent in places like supermarkets and healthcare.


With this shift in work-life balance, studies have not yet been able to show what is better for productivity, for those who have the ability to work from home (working from home vs. partly from offices). The challenges associated with this new way of working are compounded by difficulties in communication for those without access to technology, in addition to people taking on negative coping behaviours (e.g. eating and drinking more).


There are many elements, including psychosocial factors, that need to be integrated into occupational health management systems and return to work policies.


Poppy Jaman: We need to think about how we take the “remote” out of “remote working” and our new patterns of working, and it’s also important to do a mental health and wellbeing impact assessment on the new work environments to ensure that health can continue to move forward in the new environment.


Poppy Jaman: Can you tell us what you’ve been hearing from the businesses you’ve been speaking to?


Emma Jacobs, FInancial Times

People are more willing to talk about the personal side of things as the lines between home and work become more blurred. Senior managers and CEOs are working from home and we’re seeing more of their personal lives. There are conversations about whether this is the new era of empathy. I am not sure about that but it feels like a window of opportunity to enhance managers’ understanding of their teams. The intersection of people’s home and family lives with work has meant that different people have different set-ups, even if they’re in the same role, and within larger companies, different countries have responded at different paces. It began as an emergency situation and has slowly become a more normal way of working. There is also anxiety amongst the workforce about returning to places of work physically, although it’s important to note that there are those who have enjoyed this aspect of work so may be reluctant to go back.


Poppy Jaman: Empathy, calmness and kindness are emerging as the key traits amongst leaders during this time of lockdown and the pandemic. 


Poppy Jaman: When lockdown first happened, most people assumed this was a short-term thing. As the pandemic evolved it became clear that this would be the norm for the future. As a global organisation, how has Salesforce supported employees to adjust to the new way of working and coping with their mental health through the uncertainty?


Charlotte Kirby, Salesforce

We started with key questions: How do we take remote out of remote working for all employees? How do we keep the business going as well as looking after employees with differing needs, regardless of location?

The answers all came down to communication:


  • Engaged leadership to provide updates for teams with a focus on communication, information and fun

  • Daily bulletins for employees everywhere, including relevant information for each country

  • Regular surveys asking employees for their priorities and where they were in regard to mental health? Packages and employee support were adapted according to responses.

  • Advice from leading experts including mental and physical health (e.g. diet and exercise)

  • Encouraged people to take holiday and flexi time for their own wellbeing

  • Also supported people through crises in social and racial injustice globally, as well as supporting people through COVID-19


The key is to focus communications and strategic plans on three areas: stabilise, reopen and grow.


Poppy Jaman: What is the future of workplace mental health and has COVID-19 helped improve awareness and understanding of workplace mental health?


Aiysha Malik, WHO

COVID-19 has caused unmissable disruption to our lives so it has also amplified the need to take care of workers and those who aspire to work. A multi-sectoral approach is needed to ensure we’re working towards a common agenda for workplace mental health and the momentum of awareness, learning during adversity and action taken needs to continue. The WHO is currently working on a global programme of action to secure a mentally healthy future for working people, where all workers have access to the care they need, care that is effective and care that is valued.


Transforming workplace mental health requires a global approach; working with countries to develop policies around workplace mental health, and support for workplaces to implement programmes. It requires commitment from governments and workplaces towards preventing risk factors and providing access to the services that people need. Also, establishment of programmes to build competency in managers to support workers in a compassionate way and ensuring diversity and inclusion is factored in going forward.


Finally, defining the global research agenda is imperative to strengthen the science and to ensure that investment is directed towards effective actions, through collaboration between government, international organisations and the scientific community.


Poppy Jaman: How should employers be adapting for the future when it comes to workplace mental health? What should they be doing now?


Manal Azzi, ILO

This is a global emergency so the burden shouldn’t be entirely on employers. Governments, companies, managers, workers and unions all have roles to play. Policies should always keep workers at the centre of the discussion. Businesses will differ in their approach and ability, and smaller organisations can’t be expected to do the same as larger ones. Within workplaces, we need to recognise the role of human resources, counsellors, and medical services collaborating for better outcomes. It’s also important to take the opportunity to survey workers and collect data, so that guidance being developed keeps the audience in mind; mental health provision can be integrated into the system; and decisions being made aren’t one sided.


Poppy Jaman: The big change that has happened is that workplaces have become part of the health ecosystem and should be seen as such. It’s a huge change for leaders and a psychological and emotional shift is required to get there.


Poppy Jaman: What advice would you give other employers planning return to work policies?


Emma Jacobs, Financial Times

Talk to employees and try to understand their needs and requirements without making assumptions. Take time to understand the different parts of your workforce beyond just surveying them. Talk to them and have conversations and create a culture of learning which engages everyone as well as factoring in the differing needs (e.g. home-schooling). Trust your employees to work without micro-management and be inquisitive about your teams. Be curious, trust them, and don’t assume.


Poppy Jaman: What would you say is the benefit to businesses of prioritising the mental health of their staff during this period when there are so many other challenges to focus on?


Charlotte Kirby, Salesforce

Salesforce has focused on the benefits of building diverse and talented workforces; prioritising equal rights regardless of gender and location etc. This should also include removing the stigma associated with talking about mental health to achieve true equality. At Salesforce, there is now far less of a stigma around the mental health conversation and if you have clear communications, and workforces are enabled to be themselves in all aspects, then you are unlocking the potential to a truly diverse, agile and innovative workforce. 


Poppy Jaman: Three points to end on:

  1. Self-care and the Five Ways of Wellbeing: stay connected; give; be active; take notice; keep learning

  2. During the pandemic, everybody was asking “How are you?” This change has happened now, and we need to continue practicing it now

  3. Mental health leadership matters. Workplaces are cornerstones of society and we need every single person, regardless of seniority, to demonstrate mental health leadership so it is ingrained in the rebuild, and that the mental health conversation has a seat at the table.


Next week’s webinar will be on Mental Health and Substance Use. You can sign up via this link.