Mental health at work in the wake of Covid asked Dame Carol Black about latest trends in mental health at work and about the longer term impact of Covid.

Tired nurse wears face mask blue uniform gloves sits on hospital floor. Essential worker feels burnout stress of corona virus frontline


Dame Carol Black holds a wide variety of roles, including several relating to mental wellbeing at work. She is chair of the Centre for Ageing Better and Think Ahead, the Government’s fast-stream training programme for Mental Health Social Workers as well as the NHS Improvement’s Advisory Board on Employee Health and Wellbeing. She is also a member of RAND Europe’s Council of Advisers. In addition she is a Patron of the Women’s Leadership Centre in the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge, where she is a former Deputy Vice-Chancellor. Dame Carol participates regular in the  Mad World Summit.

The summit, which is held annually in London – most recently in October – describes itself as “Europe’s only solutions-focused conference and exhibition with a clear mission: to eradicate stigma and spark a new era of mental health and wellbeing in the workplace”. This year Dame Carol chaired the Think Tank session at the summit, focused on “Closing the gap between employer and employee perceptions of workplace health support”. asked her about latest trends in mental health at work in the wake of Covid. How big a part does mental health play in the health issues that have led to growing figures on economic inactivity as a result of Covid? 

Dame Carol Black: Poor mental health is playing a big part in the growing figures on economic inactivity. According to the FT, “the second biggest contributor to the rise in worklessness [economic inactivity] has been people dropping out due to mental illness”. It says the pandemic triggered a steep acceleration in these conditions, with almost 40 per cent of the rise in economic inactivity explained by people with a mental health issue that limits their ability to work.

wms: Are the young more affected than older workers?

DCB: Both the young and older worker have suffered in and after the pandemic, and their economic inactivity has risen. The Institute for Employment Studies’ October statistics on the labour market shows that “the large majority of the growth in economic inactivity has been among older people (just under three quarters of the total). This has been fairly evenly split between men and women, although it appears to have increased faster among women than men in the over 65 group (which most likely reflects the fact that the State Pension is now set at age 66).” The older worker seems therefore to have fared worse. It is interesting to note that younger women are now returning to work.

wms: The Government has just extended its work with NHS England to help those who common mental health issues get back to or stay in work. What works best to get those with mental health problems back to work?

DCB: The best way to get those with mental health issues into work, or to stay there, is to have empathetic leadership and people-centred managers who personalise their approach. Once this is done then employers need to have available interventions that have the best chance of working, i.e. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Mindfulness, Employee Assistance Programmes and peer support. Employers need to beware of plastering over the cracks with nice but not sustainable interventions.

wms: What about preventing them from dropping out in the first place?

DCB: The best way to keep people in work is to have a workplace culture that is supportive of positive mental health. This means providing ‘good work’ in an environment that is psychologically safe.

wms: How much of a role is financial wellbeing a factor in people’s ill health?

DCB: There has never been a time when it has been so important to focus on financial wellbeing. Employers need to have a strategy for financial wellbeing in their workforce – one that tackles common money challenges and delivers across the whole workforce, in a joined-up offering.

wms: Are you worried that some research suggests employers who provided mental health support during the first lockdowns have now dropped some of this work as we have emerged from lockdown?

DCB: I too have heard anecdotal comments about the level of support being reduced in some organisations, but I have seen no hard evidence to support this. I have certainly seen organisations with frontline staff, for example, the NHS, change the nature of their support. This is the correct thing to do, as employees’ needs have changed from those seen during the acute Covid phase to new ones emerging in the more chronic aftermath.

wms: What difference can events like the Making a Difference conference make in terms of raising awareness of the importance of ongoing measures on mental health at work, particularly in vital frontline areas?

DCB: The value lies in knowledge exchange, sharing ideas and networking. The whole point is for delegates to go away energised to do even better in the mental health area.

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