The Covid-19 pandemic is an opportunity for businesses to embed policies and practices to support staff wellbeing and mental health, a Travel Weekly Mental Health Matters Brunch was told.

Chris O’Sullivan, head of communications and fundraising for Scotland and Northern Ireland at the Mental Health Foundation, said the pandemic has been a “seismic event” when it comes to mental health.

But he said the focus on the wellbeing of staff during the crisis has created an opportunity for businesses to address issues that may have not have been prioritised before.

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“There is a real opportunity to put mental health in with the bricks,” he said. “This [pandemic] has been a seismic event when it comes to mental health.

“But it has created an enormous opportunity, as well as challenges, as we head towards the recovery.”

Wilma Taylor, human resources director at leading Scottish travel agency Barrhead Travel, said the most important thing for it has been maintaining communication with staff.

Barrhead has tried to keep staff engaged and in contact with each other through special online social events and had encouraged team leaders to be available and proactively reach out to colleagues.

“These are extraordinarily challenging times for the travel industry in particular,” she said. “We realised we just had to be open, honest  and transparent with everything. We don’t have a crystal ball.

“People were asking us for answers and we just did not have them, but the main thing is keeping open those lines of communication so people were aware we were here as a business for them.”

Derek Jones, chief executive of Kuoni parent Der Touristik UK, said the last 13 months has been a “rollercoaster”, particularly for its young workforce many of whom live alone.

He said for many of Kuoni’s staff the lifestyle they enjoyed pre-pandemic which revolved around loving alone and socialising became a trap when businesses closed and lockdowns were imposed.

“Those people whose social life revolved around work and going out and who were happy to live alone and have independence suddenly found that independence was the trap that they fell into.”

Jones the impact of the COVID crisis was different for different people but tended to magnify existing feelings of loneliness of hopelessness.

“We are a very people focussed business,” he said. “Pre-pandemic we were very engaged with our teams but in a very physical way so we had to quickly come up with ways to fill that gap.

“The danger was we focussed too much on people who were still working and it was a conscious decision to communicate to everybody regularly whether they were working or on furlough.”

O’Sullivan said its analysis of the mental health impact of Covid-19 on the general population has been that the people who were at risk before became more so as a result of the pandemic.

“The good news is a lot of people have coped well,” he said. “A lot of people have found coping strategies.

“The bad news is the people you would expect to find it challenging have found it challenging. Recovery has been slower for the groups you most expect it would be slower.

“Many of us will bounce back quite quickly, but those who have always been at risk from poor mental health are more at risk now and will continue to be so.”

Taylor and Jones said as offices and stores re-open there are employees eager to get back to normal and there are those who are more nervous.

Taylor said: “There will be people worried about going back but there will be people delighted about getting out of their home environment and their own four walls.

“We have a lot of well thought through procedures. It’s been a huge piece of work to actually get the workplace open. We recognise we have a duty of care not just to our employees but our customers.”

Barrhead is aiming to get back to as near as 100% capacity as possible, but Taylor said she expects a hybrid model of working virtually and in store will persist.

Jones said the re-opening was happening slowly based on demand because he was keen not to have to reverse the re-opening again.

“We are being pretty cautious about it. Our model has changed and we will have fewer stores that at the start of the pandemic. The virtual call centre has now become a very successful, integral part of our business.”