The Life Under Lockdown report from King’s College has provided valuable insights into the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on population mental health in the UK. Almost half of the respondents in the survey indicated that they have felt more anxious or depressed than normal as a result of the crisis. One source of this anxiety and depression will be a fear of being exposed to adverse economic events.
Indeed, 40% of respondents indicated they are likely to face financial difficulties and 26% likely to lose their job as a result of the crisis. These rates of economic insecurity are around three to four times higher than observed in more stable times. This adds to the current policy challenges. Work-related and financial insecurity are both known to negatively affect mental health.
Damaging effects of economic insecurity
In previous research, funded by the ESRC and published in SSM - Population Health, we established the causal effect of economic insecurity on mental health. Work-related insecurity was found to be the most damaging form of economic insecurity. The effects are experienced equally by high and low earners.
We found a fear of adverse economic events is more damaging to mental health than the experience of such events. The effects are experienced regardless of expectations being realised. For example, insecure employment is damaging without future unemployment.
The current rate of economic insecurity within the population, combined with the known effects on mental health, suggests that this will be one challenge in the post-crisis period.
The potential of policy responses
Our recent discussion paper indicated that mental health can recover quickly from exposure to economic insecurity. Effective policies would reduce the burden on population mental health. Governments and employers may already have the base of such policies.
Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, governments were discussing plans to improve working practices and reduce the economic burden of poor workplace mental health. At the UK level, this led to the Good Work Plan. Additionally, the Scottish Government proposed the Fair Work Action Plan. Policy proposals informed by these plans will be important in limiting the mental health effects of the current crisis.
The role of HR policies
Mental health policies within workplaces will also be crucial. There is an increasing awareness of the role of HR policies in improving mental health. For example, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) have contributed to the Mental Health at Work Gateway. This provides resources, training and information to develop approaches to workplace mental health.
Employment practices, however, are not always consistent with workplace mental health schemes. Policies regarding contracts, living wages, and living hours can also address the mental health effects of economic insecurity.
Good for mental health, good for business
The COVID-19 crisis is having profound effects on population mental health. Government and workplace policies addressing economic insecurity can form part of the response. In addition to improving mental health this may also improve economic productivity.
Our recent report showed that industries with lower levels of insecure employment are also more productive. Reducing economic insecurity is good for both business and population mental health. These outcomes have always been important. In the post-COVID-19 era they are likely to be vital.
There is more information about HERU's work in this area at the project page on 'Insecure employment and mental health: one pathway in the productivity puzzle'.
Thanks to Dr Daniel Kopasker for his work in developing this Blog post.
HERU is supported by the Chief Scientist Office (CSO) of the Scottish Government Health and Social Care Directorates (SGHSC). The views expressed here are those of the Unit and not necessarily those of the CSO.