The hidden risk of coronavirus; how to keep your employees safe if they’re simply not safe at home

Jane Muston, BABCP accredited Practitioner, Supervisor and Trainer RN Mental Health and Clinical Director at Vita Health Group explains why UK employers should be concerned about the rising threat of domestic abuse during lockdown

Covid-19 has sent shockwaves through the UK, with serious impacts on businesses, healthcare facilities and of course the economy, but the true impact of COVID-19 is on real people. All advice and guidance points (and quite rightly) towards staying home to ensure people’s safety. However, what if one’s home isn’t safe at all? What if, by asking individuals to remain at their home, we are in fact putting them at risk.

This is the sad truth for many people (of all ages and genders) in the UK who are suffering from the horrors of domestic violence and sexual abuse. Unfortunately reports across the globe have highlighted that the risk of domestic abuse is increasing because of the lockdown. The national domestic abuse helpline, run by the charity Refuge, has already reported a 65% increase in calls. This has led Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, to acknowledge that the “home is not the safe haven it should be” and that those experiencing abuse should be allowed to leave their homes to go to a safe place. However, whilst this is all well and good, this ultimately relies on those individuals speaking out against their abusers. Something that, as we all know, can be near on impossible if that individual is in a coercive situation, too dependent upon their abuser for care or perhaps too young to ask for help.

You may well have heard of the ‘Stranger on the Bridge’ event. If you haven’t, allow me to tell you a little more about it. Having struggled with his mental health for a number of years, Jonny Benjamin stood on London’s Waterloo Bridge in January 2008 and prepared to take his own life. That was until a stranger walking across the bridge saw him and talked Jonny down from the edge. Jonny was taken to hospital and didn’t see the stranger again but was determined to find him and thank him for what he did. It is gestures like this, that can help those who are at their most vulnerable. It is gestures like this that can make the difference between someome suffering in silence and getting the help and support that they rigthly deserve to keep them safe.

But look outside… there are no strangers out walking on the bridges right now, and if they are, they’re likely following the regulations and keeping their distance from others. Quite frankly, there is no one to talk Jonny down and, as such, anyone suffering right now may well do so in absolute silence and completely unnoticed.

As a nation we do have a number of organisations and processes in place to protect those who are vulnerable to abuse, however much of this requires the signs to be spotted by teachers, employers, work colleagues, healthcare professionals, family and friends. The current environment we find ourselves in however dramatically reduces this safety net and therefore poses a significant challenge to maintaining the safety of the UK’s most vulnerable. This means that we all need to do more to spot the signs – and it is our belief that line managers and business leaders can help lead this charge.

Here is our checklist of how line managers and business leaders can ensure they are looking after their employee’s mental health during the coronavirus outbreak and most importantly our advice on what they should do if they spot any concerns:

  • More contact: Managers will need to ensure that they remain in contact with their teams adapting their conversations to include wellbeing. Whilst line manager meetings might previously have taken place once a week or every few weeks, these conversations need to take place far more often and ideally face to face over video platforms. Managers may also wish to consider changing the meeting schedule too to ensure they connect in with everyone (especially if parents are also home schooling). Likewise, they should increase the frequency of calls and hold them for shorter durations.
  • Ask difficult questions: Managers will need to learn how to become comfortable in asking the question ‘are you feeling safe?’. This is of course a very difficult question to ask someone, but it must be done and has never been so important.
  • Spot the signs: Alongside asking those difficult questions, managers will also need to keep an eye on their team member’s behaviours too. This is of course, best done over video call. They should look at the home set up, take notice if that employee always wants to turn their video off during a call, spot for increased anxiety, tiredness and of course follow up with their colleague if they haven’t replied to an email or message for a while. They must note down any changes in performance and document why these might be occurring. Is it just that the employee is tired or is there something more sinister going on?
  • Training: Managers must have training in mental health awareness and know how to have the ‘right’ conversation with members of their team. Companies may need to provide additional training, specifically with regards to safeguarding and managing risk. Courses can be done online and relatively swiftly, so it’s not too late if you don’t have these in place already.
  • Increase knowledge: Managers must have a good knowledge and understanding of company risk management procedures and when to instigate these. If they do not have procedures in place, they should consult their expert mental health provider to support them in developing one immediately. All of this can be provided remotely and at pace.
  • Mental Health Champions: All firms – no matter their size or industry – should have Mental Health champions or Mental Health first aiders. These individuals should be aware of the additional risks that are posed right now and make themselves available remotely where possible. Firms should provide additional training specifically on safeguarding and may wish to consider increasing the volume of mental health champions within the organisation.
  • Signposting: Managers must be able to provide the necessary signposting and resources to manage the appropriate response if they do indeed spot concerning signals. This will need to be done quickly and carefully. Additionally;
  • Businesses must signpost staff to EAP routinely, rather than waiting for them to become stressed or in crisis.
  • Internal communications: Whilst firms are likely to be looking to increase their internal communications anyway during this time, they should make sure this isn’t merely fun and frivolous photos of the team working from home or the standard company or financial updates. All internal communications should include background and resources relating to mental health too. An Employee Assistance Programme can play a vital role in supporting businesses in how to manage the situation; firms must re-promote access to it.

Certainly, it is everyone’s role right now to look out for the mental health and safeguarding of all members of our society. Employers and line managers need to play a key role in this process. In fact, their input, is arguably more important than ever during this challenging time.

Our message is simple. Don’t delay; be that stranger on the bridge (albeit a virtual bridge) and ask your fellow team members today; “are you ok?” and “are you safe?”. Because it could just be the difference in helping someone who rightly deserves to be kept safe.