Under pressure?

words: Sam Page, Occupational Health Advisor
Under pressure

When the COVID-19 crisis hit the UK in March 2020 it was difficult to appreciate how the nation would be collectively impacted by the challenges to mental wellbeing brought about by the pandemic.

The emergence of the virus has led to a massive change in the way that we have all been working, with increased uncertainty and new challenges for many of us.

As essential workers, you will all have been continuing to work during these uncertain times. You may have been affected by illness within your families and needed to self isolate, you may have had to try and juggle work alongside home schooling and the restrictions imposed with the lockdowns has meant that you were unable to see your friends and families. The pandemic has already been responsible for more than 100,000 deaths in the UK and this has undoubtedly had an impact upon you all, and I’m sure that at times it has felt relentless.

Working in the funeral industry, you have had to adopt new procedures to try to keep your staff safe and prevent transmission. You have also had more work than ever before. and the concern about the virus being present in your deceased clients has undoubtedly been at the front of all your minds.

All of these concerns can have an impact upon health and wellbeing, both physical and psychological. Studies have shown that the funeral industry can be affected by many stressors – the number of funerals, high demands of the job, and overexposure to death at work can lead to burnout and post-traumatic stress. Never have these factors been so relevant.

In addition, you will all be striving to provide the best possible emotional and practical support to family members of the deceased and this, combined with a fear of becoming infected yourself, can have a huge impact on psychological wellbeing.

Supporting families

The pandemic has upended traditional rituals around death and forced mourning to take place in isolation.

You have had to adapt to new ways of working, streaming funerals online, ensuring social distancing rules are adhered to and ensuring that the number of mourners does not exceed Government guidelines. Technology is now filling the void created by social distancing with digital memorials being the new normal, however this is not always easy for grieving families to accept. It has probably been difficult for you all to take in the immensity of the personal traumas that so many people have gone through.

Supporting staff

All businesses have an increasing duty of care to protect the physical and mental health and safety of their people. As you know, the experience of bereavement is unique to each person, but being in a supportive environment which allows someone to express their feelings is often helpful.

The impact of not handling deaths well during COVID-19 may risk mental health issues and post-traumatic stress disorder and there can be serious implications if trauma remains untreated. This applies to families of the deceased and also to you as the funeral director taking care of the deceased and their family. It is not acceptable to suggest that you can cope with the situation you have found yourselves in simply because you work in the funeral industry.

Supporting the clinically vulnerable

For those shielding and clinically vulnerable, the prospect of return to work carries with it a need to weigh up the potential safety risks to themselves and their family against the need to earn money, restart the economy or provide service to others.

If you have staff who have been shielding, it’s worth approaching a return to work at the end of furlough like a return from a long sickness absence, as a phased return on reduced hours may help them settle back in and allow their confidence to build. I would recommend that you ensure that their doctors are happy for them to resume work and that you communicate with these employees as to how you are providing a COVID-safe workplace.

It is important to keep in touch with these employees even though they may not be at work at the present time as it is likely that they too will be feeling the strain and possibly experiencing guilt that they have been unable to work and support their colleagues.

Mental health services across the UK were already stretched before the pandemic and, in my recent experience, the knock-on effect is likely to continue to affect the UK for many years to come.

Staying mentally well

With any period of intense and unrelieved stress, when the stress is lifted, there is sometimes an impact on physical or mental health. It’s possible that as lockdown eases, employees may realise how hard it has been and may become unwell or feel low. Just as we all have physical health to look after, we all have mental health to care for too.

The following information may help enable you to ensure that your staff feel supported and cared for.

  1. Advising your staff with regards to any support that you might be able to offer them such as an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) can be useful. The links at the foot of this article can also offer independent support to employees.
  2. It is important that your staff are able to use annual leave to recharge, even if their instinct is not to
  3. Talk to your colleagues – keep in regular contact and try to be honest and acknowledge the uncertainty and the stress that the pandemic has caused
  4. Try to minimise exposure to social media and the news if they find that this heightens anxiety
  5. Encourage everyone to focus on the present rather than the future
  6. Suggest relaxation techniques such as meditation or mindfulness which can help with anxiety
  7. Advise staff to maintain a regular sleeping pattern and ensure that your sleeping environment is restful
  8. Encourage exercise as this can help improve mood and anxiety. It is also important for physical wellbeing.
  9. Hold regular meetings with staff to ensure that they all have an opportunity to raise any concerns or worries that they might have
  10. Encourage staff to ask for help if they are struggling

One day, this crisis will end. The mental health consequences will only become fully apparent when daily pressure is no longer enough to keep people going. It is important that all of you are afforded the correct care if needed. You have all taken such amazing care of the deceased at a time of global crisis and the risk for your own lives is not to be underestimated.

Sam can assist any SAIF member and their staff – contact her on 07542 784499 or by email.

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