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workplace conversation

Impact of Covid-19 on psychological wellbeing in occupational contexts

Sharing insight from organisations’ responses to the pandemic, with a particular focus on the maritime sector.

The report, 'The Impact of Covid-19 on Psychological Wellbeing in Occupational Contexts', is available to download on the Nottingham Trent University (NTU) website. 

What we looked at 

The importance of maintaining a focus on psychological wellbeing within the workplace has long been established, with numerous studies outlining the costs to both employee and employer associated with psychological challenges in the work environment. This understanding has led to greater integration of the wellbeing agenda, albeit with a greater focus on physical rather than mental health and wellbeing. The slower uptake of mental health and wellbeing interventions in part being driven by the complexity of the issue and the lack of a clear implementation roadmap. 

However, the importance and impact of mental wellbeing was brought into focus with the onset of the COVID-19 global pandemic as individuals and organisations struggled to respond to myriad changes in the workplace and society as a whole. We wanted to see what consequences COVID-19 had on the psychological wellbeing agenda in both the short and long term, with a specific focus on the link between mental health and safety culture in the workplace. 


Why is this important? 

The Foundation has long championed the importance of mental health and wellbeing and identified the strong association between these and a robust safety culture at the industry and organisation level. Numerous studies have proposed pathways or frameworks for implementation; however, COVID-19 has significantly changed the work environment. There is therefore an urgent need to understand how COVID-19 changed organisational responses during the pandemic, but also how the pandemic might shape future policy implementation and frameworks. 


What did we do? 

We commissioned researchers at Nottingham Trent University (NTU) to build on their prior research for the Foundation by interviewing relevant experts and performing a Rapid Evidence Assessment of current research and practice trends in the literature across several sectors, but with a particular focus on seafarers’ mental health and wellbeing in the face of COVID-19, and specific issues such as the ‘crew change crisis’.  The full report is available from the NTU website.


What have we learnt? 

The authors identified several trends from their research: 

  • Whilst significant progress was made towards addressing the stigma around mental health and wellbeing, and proper open discussion, there remains a significant risk that it becomes entrenched as a way of maintaining job security in uncertain economic times. 
  • During the pandemic many organisations quickly realised the need to improve their policies relating to employee health and wellbeing, especially in areas related to remote work, job security and stress, overwork and fatigue. Interestingly, there was increased recognition that psychosocial factors could have a significant impact on mental health and wellbeing, which could compound existing issues. 
  • Implementation approaches also changed during the pandemic, with a much greater focus on social relationships and empathetic leadership contributing to a more collaborative and supportive work environment. How this linked with the potential reinforcement of a stigma around mental health remains unclear. 
  • Certain sectors were especially hard hit. The ‘crew change crisis’ that evolved in the maritime sector at the start of the pandemic, was framed as a humanitarian crisis with upwards of 400,000 seafarers stranded at sea.  Understandably this saw a significant deterioration in their mental health and wellbeing. 


What did the authors recommend? 

The authors suggest two broad themes for future implementation: 

  • Firstly, mental health and wellbeing interventions need to become much more proactive and sustained rather than acute and reactive. It is likely that such an approach will engender greater employee engagement and help reduce any stigma that exists in the workplace. 
  • Secondly, and building on the above, organisations should foster a more internally supportive work culture encouraging social relationships and peer support to ensure a more holistic approach rather than one led solely by organisational interventions. 

To support the above processes the authors created two resources; firstly, a maturity framework to provide clarity on current implementations and suggest routes to improvement. Sitting alongside is a key concepts toolkit which can be used to spark open conversations between organisations and employees based on a common terminology and understanding. 


What are we going to do next? 

COVID-19 has significantly changed the workplace, with a major change being improved understanding of mental health and wellbeing at both the individual and organisational level. As such occupational health and safety should become a central pillar of responsible organisations working to protect and improve all aspects of physical and mental wellbeing, rather than simply a reactive or preventive approach to prevent harm. 

This research forms part of the Foundation’s ongoing work to establish the relationship between psychological wellbeing and safety, and to support psychological health being as much a part of the practice of Occupational Safety and Health as physical health, particularly in the maritime industry. To further these aims, the Foundation is convening the industry to strengthen the evidence (and its use) of ‘what works’ in improving the psychological wellbeing and safety of seafarers. It is also exploring ways in which NTU can further support organisations (from any sector) to use the tools provided in this report to affect positive change, and to nurture a ‘community of practice’ among individual employees working across a variety of roles, organisations and sectors.

To find out more, please contact olivia.swift@lrfoundation.org.uk

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