Over a third of business managers sought mental health support during COVID-19, study finds
Our NerdWallet survey of over 900 UK business managers reveals the mental health impact of COVID-19 including loneliness, strained relationships, sleepless nights and feeling overwhelmed.
Our NerdWallet research has found UK managers have had to access professional help to cope with the mental pressures caused by COVID-19.
NerdWallet commissioned an independent survey of 908 UK business managers to find out the impact of the pandemic on their mental health. The findings revealed that, since the first UK lockdown on 23 March 2020, almost half of managers said furloughing or making redundancies among team members had taken a negative toll on their mental health.
Sleepless nights, loneliness, strained relationships and dwindling job enjoyment have contributed to the toll of the trying year, a pattern shared across the world. A survey carried out in October by the World Health Organisation (WHO) found that not only had existing mental health support services been disrupted by COVID-19, but the pandemic was increasing demand for mental health services.
Issues brought on by the pandemic such as bereavement, isolation, loss of income and fear were triggering mental health conditions or exacerbating existing ones, with many people facing increased levels of anxiety and insomnia.
In the UK, the economy shrank by a record 9.9% in 2020 thanks to the pandemic, the biggest fall in 300 years and more than twice the previous largest annual fall on record.
Business managers not only had to deal with their own personal response to the pandemic but also cope with shutting their businesses, furloughing staff or making them redundant and managing the strain of losing their incomes while still having fixed costs to meet such as rent, utilities, leases and financial costs.
Nic Redfern, UK finance director of NerdWallet, said: “The pandemic has taken a huge toll on businesses. And while understandably a lot of focus is on those who are furloughed or made redundant, managers are also suffering. Making difficult, yet unavoidable, decisions about the livelihoods of their employees is evidently having a significant impact on their mental health.’
In spite of it all, the majority of respondents feel more prepared to deal with a challenge in the future.
- 54% of business managers said the past 12 months have been the most stressful of their careers.
- 57% enjoyed their jobs “significantly less” during the pandemic.
- 52% saw relationships with friends and family deteriorate due to work stress, while 49% of respondents say they have felt isolated and alone.
- 56% said they regularly worked longer hours than usual and 53% said they often worked at the weekend.
- 46% said furloughing or making redundancies among team members had taken a negative toll on their mental health.
- 45% said they had lost sleep over the business decisions they made as a result of COVID-19.
- 37% have sought professional support for their mental health since the start of lockdown.
The hidden mental toll of COVID-19
While the pandemic has been a stressful time for everyone affected by COVID-19, whether indirectly or directly, the survey’s findings reveal that the impact on UK business owners is so much more than just financial. With thousands of businesses across the country struggling just to survive, the effect on business managers’ mental health has been considerable.
Our survey revealed the hidden toll of coronavirus, from sleepless nights and added stress, a feeling of loss of control, to the burden of responsibility of looking after employees’ well-being.
In many cases, work pressures have been spilling over into home life. Relationships have been affected and, as many business owners are having to pivot their companies to allow remote working from home, the line between work and home has become increasingly blurred.
Higher stress levels
Dealing with the impact of COVID-19 on businesses has been an incredibly stressful experience. The national lockdowns and local restrictions that have been put in place by the government have been a rollercoaster ride for many business managers as they coped with falling trade, enforced closures, managing staff and trying to keep their heads above water financially.
Our survey found that more than half (54%) of business managers said that the past 12 months have been the most stressful of their professional lives, 57% said that they enjoyed their job significantly less during the pandemic, and 39% said that they didn’t feel in control when it came to their job and professional responsibilities.
Looking at the stress levels by sector, the highest proportion of business managers who said that the pandemic has been the most stressful period in their career was reported by those in IT (67%), financial services (62%) and hospitality and leisure (57%).
While 54% of respondents overall said that the past 12 months had been the most stressful of their professional lives, there was a difference when it came to the demographic split, arguably showing how vulnerable the younger generation has been to the impact of COVID-19.
The highest proportion (64%) who said that this had been the most stressful time was in the 18-34 age bracket, while this dropped to 53% for 34-54 year olds and to 38% for the over-55s.
Plummeting enjoyment levels
The pleasure of running your own business is a major reason why many people choose to work for themselves, but dealing with COVID-19 has meant that many business managers are enjoying their work far less than before.
Overall, 57% of respondents said that they enjoyed their job significantly less during the pandemic compared to before.
Levels of job enjoyment among business managers during the pandemic does, however, seem to vary depending upon the size of the company. At the smallest companies (those with 1-9 employees) just 43% of business managers expressed that they have enjoyed their job significantly less during the pandemic, compared with 63% at companies with 10-49 employees, 58% at companies with 50-29 employees and 59% at the largest companies (250+ employees).
Strained personal relationships
With 56% of business owners reporting having to work longer hours than usual during the pandemic and 53% saying they regularly worked at the weekend, it is hardly surprising that many (52%) reported that their relationships with friends and family suffered as a result of the extra stress.
Longer working hours and more time spent working from home, has meant the line between home life and work life has become increasingly blurred during the pandemic. Of the business managers we surveyed, 57% said that they found it harder to switch off and forget about work while they were remote working.
Business managers at the smallest companies appear to have coped better with remote working, with only 38% indicating that they found it harder to switch off from work compared to 62% of business managers at companies with between 50 and 249 employees.
Feeling isolated and overwhelmed
With so many hurdles to overcome merely to keep going throughout the pandemic, not to mention the uncertainty over when things will get back to normal, it is hardly surprising that business managers have reported feeling alone and overwhelmed during COVID-19. This feeling has been intensified by being apart from colleagues due to the government’s ‘stay at home’ message to try and limit the spread of coronavirus.
Almost half (49%) admitted to regularly feeling isolated due to remote working and 42% said they concealed information from colleagues about how the business was performing in order to boost morale. In spite of the distant working practices, such as working from home, 72% said they maintained regular contact with colleagues throughout the pandemic.
Overall, the burden of responsibility has weighed heavy on business managers: 50% said that they often felt overwhelmed by the responsibility of managing people during the COVID-19 crisis and 46% said putting people on furlough or making them redundant had taken a toll on their mental health.
Sleep is vital to good physical and mental health, but has been negatively affected for some business managers. Just under half (45%) of business owners said they had lost sleep over the business decisions they had made during COVID-19.
What actions have business owners had to take during COVID-19?
From the moment that the first lockdown was announced, business managers of companies of all sizes have had to make some tough decisions affecting the lives of their employees. The NerdWallet survey looked at what these difficult choices were.
Remote working, furlough and redundancy
Two-thirds (67%) of business managers said that they had to switch to remote working arrangements, while 56% had to put one or more employees on the government’s furlough scheme.
In spite of the option to furlough staff members, 44% of business managers said that they still had to make one or more employees redundant.
Changing working hours was an option for some business managers, with 55% reducing one or more employees’ working hours in some way, such as from full-time to part-time.
While the government schemes such as the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) and Bounce-Back Loans were extremely useful to businesses to help them keep going financially, initial problems in accessing them was also a source of stress for many business owners. Both schemes have now been replaced by the Recovery Loan Scheme, which launches on 6 April 2021.
Cutting costs during the pandemic
As income for many British businesses was reduced by the loss of trade during lockdown, it became a priority for managers to cut back on expenditure and make savings wherever they could.
Moving to cheaper premises was an option that some took (29%), while others cancelled the rental contract on their business premises (30%) or moved to a more flexible shorter rolling contract for their workplace (32%). Employee perks such as company cars, medical insurance or subsidised meals were also a target for cost-cutting measures, with 39% cutting those back.
The survey results also show a willingness among some business managers to put the financial interests of their staff above their own, with 40% taking a pay cut to protect the jobs and salaries of others. Young managers were more likely to be financially disadvantaged, with 59% of 18-34 years taking a pay cut to protect other staff members from job cuts or furlough compared with 32% of 34-54 year olds and 26% of over-55s.
The pressures faced by many business managers throughout the COVID-19 crisis has meant that 37% have already sought professional help to support them through this difficult period.
Business managers at companies with 50-249 employees are twice as likely to have sought professional help (46%) than those at the smallest companies (23%), so far.
In positive news, 64% of owners said they now felt better prepared to handle any future crisis in their business after 12 months of dealing with coronavirus, with construction (89%), media (84%) and manufacturing (68%) feeling particularly prepared as a result of the pandemic.
Nic Redfern, UK finance director of NerdWallet, said: “Our research shows that feelings of isolation are common, while the added work stress caused by COVID-19 is also hindering people’s relationships at home. To that end, it is encouraging to see that many managers have taken it upon themselves to seek professional help to overcome the mental pressures caused by the pandemic.
“There are important conversations that need to be had within businesses across the UK. Employees at all levels need support for their mental wellbeing – even as we transition out of lockdown, we cannot ignore the heavy burden that the past 12 months have placed upon so many people.”
Hope for the future
The good news is that with the rollout of the UK’s vaccination programme, many business managers are feeling more positive about the future. A survey carried out last month by Accenture/IHS Markit showed that business optimism is now at its highest level since June 2015, with 68% of firms expecting an increase in business activity.
The poll of 1,400 British firms showed that hotels and restaurants were the most confident sector, having been the least confident last autumn.
According to the government’s current roadmap, outdoor sports facilities will be allowed to reopen on March 29, and up to six people or two households will be allowed to meet outdoors, including in private gardens. On April 12, non-essential retail, gyms, zoos and hairdressers will be allowed to reopen and restaurants and pubs will be allowed to serve drinks and food outdoors.
If the timetable goes to plan, indoor dining and hotel stays will be permitted on May 17 and businesses in all but the highest risk sectors will be allowed to reopen.
Where to get help dealing with stress
Dealing with mental stress can feel like an uphill struggle at times but there are many organisations which can help.
- The NHS has a comprehensive list of useful phone numbers and website addresses for people looking to get mental health support. The NHS website contains information about health problems and treatments and details of local NHS services.
- Mind mental health charity provides advice and support for anyone experiencing a mental health problem including where to get help, and also has support about helping someone else who is struggling. It can be contacted on its Infoline 0300 123 3393 which is open 9-6 Monday to Friday or by email on [email protected]
- Anxiety UK offers advice and support for people living with anxiety. Its helpline 03444 775 774 is open 9.30-5.30 Monday to Friday.
- Togetherall.com is an online mental health community (formerly called Big White Wall). Its online community is available 24/7 and it has a range of self-guided courses to be done at your own pace. Access is free in some areas via the NHS, employer or university.
- International Stress Management Association has information about stress including details of practitioners who might be able to help.
- Samaritans is open 24/7 for anyone who needs to talk. Its freephone helpline is 116 123 and its email address is [email protected].
- Stressbusting contains information about stress including causes, treatments and coping techniques.
- Stress Management Society has information about stress and tips on how to cope.
The market research was carried out between 9 and 12 March 2021 among 908 managers within UK businesses via an online survey by independent market research agency Opinium. Opinium is a member of the Market Research Society (MRS) Company Partner Service, whose code of conduct and quality commitment it strictly adheres to. Its MRS membership means that it adheres to strict guidelines regarding all phases of research, including research design and data collection; communicating with respondents; conducting fieldwork; analysis and reporting; data storage. The 908 respondents are all decision makers and managers within UK businesses. They all are responsible for managing teams of employees within their respective organisation.
Image source: Getty Images
Sarah Bridge has been writing about business and finance since 2000. She was formerly Deputy Editor, Personal Finance, The Mail on Sunday and was previously the paper's Leisure Correspondent. Read more