How to deal with health crises in the workplace

The coronavirus pandemic has put the spotlight on health, with companies stepping up to support staff through issues such as Long COVID, grief and the menopause

From paid lockdown leave to encouraging set lunch breaks and even meeting-free days, corporate wellbeing policies are receiving more attention than ever, with the image of the ideal employer significantly remodelled over the course of the pandemic. 

While the widespread effects of Long COVID are prompting calls for greater employee support, addressing other situations that can cause disruptions to work, such as grief and menopause, are seeing empathetic employers step up. Here we spotlight companies removing the stigma around needing help.

Dealing with grief

Tech giant Siemens has received more than 600 formal requests for compassionate leave in the past 12 months. This is part of the reason why it has joined a coalition of MPs, charities and business leaders calling on the government to introduce a minimum two weeks’ paid bereavement leave following the death of a close relative or partner, in light of the mounting coronavirus death toll.

“We believe in compassion and discretion on this issue and encourage a supportive and relaxed view on this. Our approach has enabled our people to ‘bring their whole selves to work’, knowing that, as an employer, we care about them. This has had a positive impact on the company’s goals, its reputation and attractiveness as an employer,” says Valerie Todd, human resources director for Siemens.

The company’s policy, which includes regular managerial training, has been in place for more than ten years. It offers five days’ paid leave as well as time off to attend the funeral for family members, with further time granted at a manager’s discretion. It also offers two weeks parental bereavement leave for those who lose a child under 18 or suffer a stillbirth after 24 weeks’ pregnancy.

Its Employment Assistance Programme offers free bereavement counselling for employees, with internal Mental Health First Aiders on hand, plus company-wide training on mental health awareness, including a Wellbeing Festival. 

“Being explicit about supporting your employees during such periods in their life and showing that, as an organisation, it’s good to talk about what you’re going through when you lose someone, will help our people cope better with their sad loss. It also enhances the sense of belonging and the long-term commitment to our company and its values,” says Todd.

Support through menopause

Almost a third (30 per cent) of women experiencing menopause say their symptoms have worsened during the pandemic, according to The Menopause Hub. But 90 per cent of UK businesses don’t offer specific support. Yet 59 per cent of working women between 45 and 55 with symptoms say it negatively impacts them at work, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, whose insights show women over 50 are the fastest growing workforce demographic, while the average age for menopause transition is 51. 

With 13 per cent of its workforce women over 45, the launch of Channel 4’s dedicated menopause policy in 2019 has resulted in 78 per cent of the TV channel’s staff feeling better about the company as a place to work, while 10 per cent of female employees have used or plan to use the policy. 

Long COVID is a serious concern; those who are experiencing this illness are in effect ‘patient zero’. It’s such a new illness, with no clear path to recovery.

Launched on World Menopause Day with a panel event and employee videos, it includes flexible working, paid leave, quiet workspaces when in the office, awareness briefings to leadership teams and a Menopause Champion, alongside its in-house gender equality staff network 4Women. It recently partnered with Bupa Occupational Health to introduce cover under a new Menopause Plan and made its menopause policy public last year to inspire other companies to follow suit.

“What’s exciting is that publishing the menopause policy has meant other organisations and partners are keen to hear our experiences and share theirs and, importantly, are increasing awareness and sharing what has worked,” says Kirstin Furber, Channel 4’s people director, who is also the executive sponsor of 4Women.

A key part of the process has been to embed the policy in company culture through regular, open conversations, while actively communicating how employees can access what they need. 4Women is now looking at other health issues affecting women, starting with a staff survey to better understand where to focus support.

Understanding Long COVID

Flexible workspace provider Clockwise has supported around 10 per cent of its workforce with issues directly related to COVID-19, with half experiencing ongoing needs. Clockwise is addressing each case individually, enabling a bespoke approach through a combination of company sick pay, flexible working, and access to physical and mental health support. 

“Long COVID is a serious concern; those who are experiencing this illness are in effect ‘patient zero’. It’s such a new illness, with no clear path to recovery, so we’re mindful to work in collaboration with those suffering with this illness,” says the company’s chief operating officer Alexandra Brunner.

“We want our people to rebound from any challenges, however we must appreciate this may be a longer process and the route to recovery may not be direct. This can intrinsically lead to frustration, so it’s crucial conversations are ongoing and expectations are managed fluidly.”

Recognising the emotional impact of such a debilitating, prolonged decline in health is just as crucial as dealing with the physical aspect, Brunner adds. All managers are therefore provided with mental health first aid training to take action pre-emptively to avoid a further decline in a team member’s mental wellbeing. 

But she notes it’s also important to understand instances when, as an employer, it’s not their place to solve an issue, but provide access to professional help. 

“We are their employer and, while we might become trusted colleagues and friends, we recognise we mustn’t act as parents or encourage this within the team,” Brunner explains.

Supporting the mental health challenges of Long Covid

Lennie Prosper, a 58-year-old London-based IT trainer, was rushed to hospital with Covid-19 and pneumonia in March 2020, spending nine days in hospital. Nearly a year on, he still experiences daily bodily aches and cramps, low stamina and concentration levels, and difficulty breathing and sleeping. Nevertheless, by mid-May he’d resumed work duties from home and in mid-June was asked to return to the workplace full time, which despite not being fully recovered, he did. 

While direct post-discharge support has been minimal, the offer of counselling from his partner’s employer, a central London law firm, has helped get him “back to a form of normality”.

“I suffered anxiety and panic attacks. I felt I was coming apart and every day I felt more depressed,” Prosper recalls. “My partner’s employer heard of my illness and offered me free access to their counselling service. I ignored their offer for many months, but when I realised I was finding excuses to not do everyday things, I decided to accept.”

He set up regular phone sessions with the founder of employee support service Confidence to Return, Sandie Dennis, who confirmed Prosper was showing symptoms of PTSD. Dennis helped him “identify what I was doing, why I was doing it and ways to handle and control it”, with focused tasks as well as breathing and coping exercises, which Prosper practices daily. 

He credits Dennis for tackling the depression he feels certain he would have succumbed to and feels employers have a duty of care to their workforce. He believes businesses need to allow employees the time and opportunities to work on the longer term impact serious diseases, such as COVID-19, can have and make it easier for staff to raise and pursue these issues.