Politics

Welsh Government need to consider mental health with office working clamp down

Just as we thought that 2021 would return to some sort of normality, reports of a new mutation of Covid emerging from South Africa changed all of that overnight and during the last few weeks, the so-called Omicron variant has spread like wildfire across the globe.

Fortunately, the initial data from those countries affected first suggests that whilst it is more infectious, it is a milder illness that largely resembles a common cold and, more importantly, the highly successful vaccination programme along with booster jabs has ensured higher levels of protection.

Despite this, and largely because of the dearth of any real information about the variant at the time, governments around the world rushed to impose new restrictions which ranged from closing borders to restricting access to hospitality for unvaccinated citizens.

Here in the UK, a different approach was taken by each of the devolved nations and the UK Government with Wales imposing restrictions that some have argued have little merit without a clear demonstration of the science behind the decision which, as I write this, has yet to be forthcoming.

I am sure you will be pleased to read that this column won’t dwell on this contentious debate and you’ll have to go to social media to experience the deep feelings on both sides for and against this situation.

However, there is one restriction which both employers and unions have noted may have gone too far namely the fines that will be handed out to employees in Wales who go to work when they could work from home.

Whilst there had been guidance from the Welsh Government encouraging home-working, workers will now receive a £60 fixed penalty notice and employers given a fine of £1,000 every time they break the rule.

Naturally, the argument for this change was to limit the spread of the virus and protect public health, but there seemed to be very little explanation why the approach is so draconian, especially when there were few restrictions imposed on people going to pubs or supermarkets and many businesses and organisations had clear guidelines on managing the movement of staff

This approach is something that ministers will have to explain in the future, but it does raise the question of unintended consequences especially in terms of the mental health of workers, some of whom will be seriously affected by these restrictions once more.

These challenges were highlighted in a report from the Enterprise Research Centre that examined the experiences of firms in dealing with workplace mental health and Covid-19, especially in terms of the impact of homeworking on individuals.

It had a number of important findings, most notably that people had also become less likely to admit to experiencing mental health problems since the start of lockdown.

This was compounded by the fact that the lack of regular face-to-face interactions between employers and employees meant that changes in behaviour could not be identified although some employers had started to become more proactive in checking in on staff regularly.

Mental health issues also varied between different groups of employees and younger staff in particular were reported to be likely to struggle more with the isolation of remote working.

More relevantly, it would seem that Covid-19 affected those who had not previously experienced mental health problems such as parents who were home-schooling their children while trying to work at home.

Of course, some have embraced homeworking as it has given them flexibility between managing their personal and working lives but this varies according to circumstances and having two people working at home in a small terraced house with two children has undoubtedly led to mental health issues in people who may have no prior history of them.

But whilst there is evidence that working from home can lead to increased levels of mental health, one of the problems identified is that people have become increasingly reluctant to admit mental health issues as there is a perception it could undermine their role in the organisation and increase their vulnerability to potential redundancy.

So even if there are mental health issues within an organisation, they may not be identified due to homeworking or a reluctance to admit these challenges by individuals.

Of course, there is a clause in the Welsh Government’s new legislation which notes that employees can go to work if there is a clear business or well-being need that would make working from home impractical.

Yet who will risk breaking the law when such a condition is highly subjective and, with respect, who in the police forces or the civil service is able to judge the mental state of an employee who may claim that working from home would affect their health?

Certainly, there seems to be little evidence that this critical issue was considered prior to imposing the new legislation which, if this is the case, is enormously disappointing given the lack of restrictions on movement elsewhere.

As we enter 2022 and hopefully get past the latest Covid surge with as few deaths as possible, legislators must also ensure that there is consideration of other issues such as mental health when imposing any future restrictions so as to avoid longer term casualties in our economy and society.



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