By Daniel Stander, employment lawyer and certified mental health first aider at Vedder Price LLP (www.vedderprice.com)

This week’s news that England and Scotland were to join the rest of the United Kingdom in a third national lockdown as it entered its harshest period of rising virus transmission rates and strain on emergency services since last March, was a bitter pill to swallow. For a hospitality sector that has just faced its annus horribilis, the announcement of even tighter restrictions and grim acknowledgment that the new variants of the coronavirus means further setbacks.This seems at odds with the ela- tion felt over the rollout of the UK’s mass vaccination programme.

As hospitality comes to terms with the new restrictions and the light at the end of the tunnel promised by the vaccine rollout flickers a little less brightly, it is acutely apparent that there are situations where individuals may find it harder to look after their mental health and wellbeing.

After all, other than the mere fact of living through a pandemic, many in the sector have experienced significant financial pressure as a result of businesses having to contend with an ever-changing public health land- scape and the operational impact thereof.They may be working under pressure to keep businesses afloat with increased hours, often compounded by added childcare obligations as a result of school closures. They are also heavily reliant on government support to survive this latest lockdown, including the extended Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and financial help announced by the Chancellor.All of these factors can increase feelings of anxiety, loneliness and isolation, which are factors for mental ill health.

With that being the case, helping to ease the mental strain over the next few months until the most vulnerable in society are vaccinated and these restrictions can be lifted is key, but how can employers go about achieving this?

PUT ONYOUR OWN MASK FIRST

Many business owners who lease premises live above and are at risk of losing not only their operating premises but also their homes.With the pressure in the sector being immense, it is crucial that employers lead from the front and take steps to safeguard their own mental health and wellbeing in order that they can be in a strong position to support their staff.Talking about mental health can be really difficult and if employees see their bosses speaking out about their own experiences it can help strip away stigma and create a more inclusive and open work culture.

CREATE SPACE FOR CONVERSATION

With the sector caught up in a merry-go-round of uncertainty, many employees are likely to be experiencing a worsening of their mental health.A survey of 16,000 people carried out by the mental health charity, Mind, found that 60% of adults and over two thirds of young people (68%) said their mental health got worse during the 2020.

Employers should be holding regular check-ins with staff (including those who have been furloughed) and creating opportunities for discus- sions around mental health and wellbeing.A manager may not always know what is best to say, or may feel that they need to “fix” the situation. In reality, most people just want to feel heard and that their needs are approached from a position of empathy.

SIGNPOST AVAILABLE SUPPORTS

Employers can help demonstrate that they take mental health seriously and ensure that employees are made aware of where to find mental health support information both within the business and via external resources.This includes signposting to employee assistance programmes, which can be a cost-effective yet vital ingredient to provide employees with holistic support for their wellbeing. If an employee assistance progamme has not had great take-up, it might be time for a re-launch to promote its positive benefits.

CONSIDER THE BUSINESS’ MENTAL HEALTH STRATEGY

Employers are recommended to conduct a “health-check” of their mental health strategy to best discharge their responsibilities.Are policies in place and are they up to date and effective? Does management feel equipped with the tools to deal with mental health issues and have sensitive workplace conversations? If not, employers in hospitality should consider taking steps to ensure that staff receive training in mental health first aid.