Mental health a top workplace priority during the coronavirus pandemic

A recent webinar from Mercer for HR professionals looked at the growing importance of mental well being during the coronavirus pandemic and suggested employers need to take an inclusive approach, targeting vulnerable groups.

Sad, Depressed woman


Mental well being has taken pole position for HR professionals over the last months, according to a new poll, but will that remain the case long term?

Human resources consulting firm Mercer delivered a webinar last week based around a poll of 58 employers with over one million employees collectively conducted in early May. It showed that over a third were anticipating redundancies and lay-offs and 28% had furloughed staff, but that there was a lot of variation across sectors, with 73% in accommodation and food services having been furloughed. Michelle Sequeira, Principal, UK Diversity and Inclusion Consulting Leader at Mercer, said the impact of COVID-19 had also affected some groups of employees more than others, for instance, parents and BAME employees. Older employees could also be added to that list.

Before the pandemic diversity and inclusion [D & I] and health and well being policies were the top priority for half of employers. Sequeira said inclusive strategies made for greater resilience. After COVID-19, many employers had shifted towards short-term responses, but mental health had crept up the agenda.  She highlighted how mental health education was now the top priority for many HR teams in addition to targeting well being benefits at marginalised groups. Building a culture of inclusion had, however,  fallen down the priority list as had D & I training.

Flexible working

The poll also showed that, when it comes to flexible working, organisations had responded quickly, with 93% allowing employees to change their working hours, 90% offering some remote working and 88% allowing people with dependents to work flexibly.  Employee engagement was also an important focus and employers were using different channels to engage with staff.

Nick Mcclelland, Partner and Commercial Leader in Mercer March Benefits, warned, however, of the danger of ‘zoom burnout’ and recommended that employers should not react in a “knee-jerk” way to well being issues and instead counselled that they think carefully about what channels are needed and do not overload people with possible solutions.

Sequeira said now that the initial period of firefighting had passed there was a good opportunity to scale up people policies focused on long-term well being, such as strengthening employee networks that build on people’s need for social interaction.


Mcclelland said work would not be the same as before the pandemic and employers needed to ensure mental health continued to be a focus. While financial well being was also likely to be increasingly important and testing would ensure physical well being was high up the list of employer concerns, it was vital, he said, that employers didn’t let other aspects of well being, such as the social part, slip off the agenda. “Employers should look at reinventing well being in the context of diversity and inclusion and use this period as an opportunity to reconsider what we are trying to achieve with well being. This is a massive opportunity to get it right, to be much better as workplaces.”

Sequeira added that return to work was likely to happen in phases rather than be a single event, with local lockdowns a possibility. Building resilience was vital, she said. Employers also needed to find alternative ways to recognise the pressure employees had had to navigate to get through this year, given cash incentives were unlikely to be possible. One suggestion for the future was to move beyond individual rewards towards team-based ones which would be more inclusive. Flexible working was also a likely long-term result of lockdown and could also build a more inclusive workforce. Mercer’s survey found 87% of employers think flexible working will be a big focus for this year, with line manager training and career progression for flexible workers being key issues.


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