The Covid-19 pandemic has increased both unemployment and the number of people experiencing poor mental wellbeing (Office for National Statistics, 2021; Banks and Xu, 2020). While it is too early to understand the full impacts of the pandemic, studies already point to its unequal social impact in terms of both unemployment and mental health.
Organisations providing employment support both signpost (or refer, depending on the type of service) those who need it to specialist support, but also take proactive steps to support every participant with their wellbeing.
As an employment support provider, Reed in Partnership helps people all over the UK to find employment or training. While we refer many people to specialist support, we have also provided a range of both group and one-to-one wellbeing interventions to support thousands of participants over the past year.
This short briefing explores the complex relationship between the employment and wellbeing impacts of the pandemic, and how the employment support services offered by Reed in Partnership are adapting to this changing landscape. We look at the work our wellbeing team on the JETS service in the North East of England are doing to support people to manage anxiety, practise mindfulness and increase their awareness of stress.
The impact of the pandemic
Coronavirus and the associated lockdowns have led to an increase in the rate of unemployment from a 50-year low of 3.8% in the last quarter of 2019 (ONS, Dec 2019) to 4.9% in April 2021 (ONS, Apr 2021). The unemployment rate is expected to rise to about 6.5% by the end of 2021 (Office for Budget Responsibility projections) - a seven-year high (The Health Foundation). This would mean around 940,000 more people will be unemployed than in 2019.
The Health Foundation suggests that this and the associated increases in long-term unemployment will result in around 200,000 more people with poor mental health by the end of 2021 compared with the same time in 2019. People will increasingly require support with their wellbeing to get them back into work, especially when they been out of work for some time, as studies have shown the longer someone is unemployed the more likely their mental health is to worsen. Of course unemployment-related poor mental health is one aspect of the many factors impacting on mental health during the pandemic, from the frontline experiences of health and care workers to loneliness, or the positive impact of removing pressures such as long commutes for some people. There are several other factors more directly related to the pandemic that might have an impact too (see Postel-Vinay, 2020).
Unemployment and poor mental health
There are a number of studies that illustrate the negative impacts unemployment can have on a person’s mental health (Paul and Mosey, 2009; Bell and Blanchflower, 2011). As a recent briefing from the Health Foundation outlines, these can be:
- Psychological factors - being made redundant or being unable to find a job can be a big blow to confidence and self-esteem. It can also cause disruption to a person’s day-to-day routine and result in a lack of structure, which can be destabilising.
- Financial factors - stress related to not having a steady and sufficient financial income can lead to anxiety, especially when this makes basic necessities such as housing or food insecure.
- Social system factors - evidence suggests that the process of accessing the social security network is often a stressful one and can exacerbate the stresses already attached to unemployment.
Findings published by the National Centre for Social Research found that while people struggling with multiple financial issues experienced the highest levels of distress both before and during Covid-19, people newly seeking financial support appeared to be particularly vulnerable to the mental health effects of the pandemic.
Poor mental health and wellbeing can also be a major barrier to getting back into and staying in work. It affects self-confidence, motivation, ability to perform tasks and general wellbeing. While employment support services seek to help an individual to find techniques to help them manage stress and anxiety (as well as referring or directing people to specialist services when appropriate) employers also have an important part to play in promoting wellbeing at work (see the CIPD’s briefing on Wellbeing at Work).
Studies have shown that getting into good work - i.e. work that fits with a person’s needs and responsibilities - has a positive impact on their mental health (Murphy and Athanasou, 2010; Health Foundation Briefing). Poor quality work, that does not suit the individual can have a negative impact on mental health by exacerbating anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. This makes clear the need for targeted and quality employment support that accounts for individual needs.
The unequal impact of the pandemic
A number of studies point to the unequal impact of both the employment/income effects and the mental health impacts of the pandemic. For example:
- Young people: Unemployment as a result of the pandemic and resulting lockdowns, has had a particularly bad impact on young people with 53.7% of the total increase in unemployment rates attributed to under 25-year-olds (ONS, 2021). This is largely due to the fact that the sectors that have been shut down (including leisure, entertainment and retail) usually have high levels of youth employment. Long-term unemployment can be particularly damaging for young people in both career and mental health terms, with one study (Strandh et al. (2014) finding that a period of unemployment in early stages of life had a marked effect on the mental health of young workers later in life (they recorded deteriorating mental health at target ages of 21, 30 and 42).
- People from an ethnic minority background: Black people and others from an ethnic minority background have been disproportionately impacted by unemployment in the pandemic. The unemployment rate for people of working age from an ethnic minority background is 3% higher than for white people (The Health Foundation). Although the rate of reported mental health problems is roughly the same for white and ethnic minority communities (ibid), Black and minority ethnic people are at a greater risk of experiencing pandemic-related mental health triggers a result of a higher rate of covid deaths amongst the BAME community and therefore higher levels of bereavement. They also have a higher likelihood of experiencing problems of access in lockdown, for instance problems accessing online resources (this is explored in detail in the UCL Research Bite on Mental health and the coronavirus).
- Women: While the claimant count has not risen as much amongst women as men, the economic crisis has been gendered in other ways (see Women’s Budget Group, February 2021). The Health Foundation has found that women - particularly mothers - were most likely to report poor mental health in January 2021.
Wellbeing support on JETS: a rapid response employment service
“Your advice, guidance and non-judgement have helped me gain perspective, self-awareness, and motivation during tough times”
In the North East of England, Reed in Partnership launched the Job Entry: Targeted Support (JETS) service in October 2020. It was commissioned by the Department of Work and Pensions (co-funded by the European Social Fund) to provide rapid help to recently unemployed jobseekers. It is separate from the North East Work and Health Programme provided by Reed in Partnership since 2018, which provides more intensive support primarily to disabled people and those with long-term health conditions to enter work.
The JETS service offers participants a personal Online Wellbeing Check, covering physical, emotional, social and financial wellbeing. It also provides access to a range of online one-to-one and group sessions provided by Reed in Partnership health and wellbeing advisers. These have seen high demand, with more than 11,500 one-to-one appointments delivered and 700 group sessions. In fact, almost one third (33.2%) of people in the active caseload for the JETS service have accessed one-to-one wellbeing support and more than half (50.7%) have taken part in group courses. In April 2021, for example, the most popular courses were: anxiety management (25% of course-takers), mindfulness (18%) and stress awareness (17%), while participants also took part in sessions on sleeping well, eating well and physical activity.
Natalie, JETS participant:
“The referral to the Health and Wellbeing Team led to attending a course on mindfulness which in turn taught me a few techniques to manage my anxiety and be more present, through using these I became more prepared for my interview as a support worker.”