The Omicron COVID variant has certainly got people worried again. Mask-wearing has yet again become legally enforced, and reports from abroad are definitely disconcerting. However – unlike this time last year – in-person working has returned, and along with it our daily commutes, work socials, and day-to-day in-person interactions. This means that the Omicron variant has many employees and employers worrying about the future – how will the workplace be affected?
The short answer is that, at this point, no one knows. We can of course look to cases abroad for an idea. For example, South Africa has seen cases double in the last 24 hours due to the variant. However, it is difficult to tell if this will be the case in the UK, due to our vastly different healthcare systems and rates of vaccination uptake. Looking closer to home does not provide many answers either. While 42 cases of Omicron have been identified in 10 European countries, it is still too early how this will play out across society.
Herein lies the problem when it comes to the workplace – the uncertainty of what will happen. For many employers, the stresses and strains of running a business during COVID are still very fresh and prominent in the mind. Anxieties around a return to remote working and a loss of cohesion in teams are certainly returning, as well as worries around revenue streams and increased operational disruptions. While for employees, thoughts of job insecurity, a potential for furlough and a return to the isolation of 2020 can be incredibly dispiriting.
Underpinning all of these anxieties and worries is, or course, the mental health impact of the pandemic. The initial lockdowns last year had very clear, tangible effects on everyone’s mental health. Multiple population measures of psychological distress from 2020 and 2021 revealed significant ‘up and down’ trends in line with the national lockdowns. Between 2019 and April 2020, there was a country-wide increase of nearly 10% of symptoms of anxiety, depression, sleep deprivation and stress – exactly around the time of the first lockdown. When the second lockdown happened at the end of 2020, the same change in distress levels was recorded.
If your employees are distressed, their work will suffer. And if their work suffers, so does your organisation. In fact, around 45% of sickness absence is directly related to mental health, and 13.8 million working days are lost each year due to stress, anxiety and depression. Not only does mental health massively impact your employees, but it undoubtedly leads to unnecessary cost and a significant loss of productivity. That is why it is so important that your employees have compassionate, effective and responsive mental health services that they can rely on. If you have not already done so, it is up to you as an employer to take preventative and proactive action to maintain your employees’ healthy mental wellbeing. The reward for getting this right is a happier, healthier and more productive workforce, and a more successful organisation.