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Brexit in the workplace: A psychology of survival?

Whenever we mention Brexit, a range of emotions break out – yet how did it get to this and what does it mean for our workplaces?

Brexit continues to focus our minds: even before the pandemic, trust, tolerance and understanding had taken a hit, and uncertainty took the lead.

This creates challenges for HR practitioners not only in attracting talent to organisations but in workforce retention.

In seeking much-needed answers, I have been working with academics and business insiders to consider Brexit in the workplace, a book edited with Professor Alexander Antoniou (University of Athens) and Professor Sir Cary Cooper (University of Manchester).

We argue that the psychological implications of Brexit have been largely ignored by policy makers. Yet with organisations already under the huge strain of COVID-19 it is vital we consider such costs in the workplace.

The admission that the UK government stands to break international law over Brexit has fuelled insecurities faced by employers and employees alike. Before the pandemic, the Chartered Management Institute was already detecting reduced job security among UK managers (CMI, 2018).

The impact on three million EU citizens living and working in the UK is particularly alarming: not only in attempting to navigate applications for ‘settled status’ – a psychologically undermining process after contributing to the UK economy for years – but also experiencing discrimination, which has been on the increase since the Brexit vote, and the negative impact on their mental wellbeing. This places an onus on workplaces to play their part in tackling these issues and providing support wherever possible.

The need to consider the ‘human’ side of the Brexit story is for the sake of all our futures. As an occupational psychologist working as a practitioner and academic researching the functioning of the UK parliament, I have wondered how it might fare if MPs had HR support. The Brexit debates brought this into sharp focus.

For MPs, the absence of an obvious employer is a distinct challenge, yet the harassment and bullying in parliament highlighted by Dame Laura Cox and the types of conflict and tragedy surrounding MPs since the UK voted to leave the EU – including the killing of Jo Cox MP – highlight the need for affirmative action. My hope is parliament can be an exemplar, but this process should start now.

The UK’s track record in corporate social responsibility suggests the future need not be a bleak one for UK organisations, particularly in relation to environmental and community concerns. However, the removal of clear guarantees for workers’ rights and lack of compromising tone from the UK government has unsettled belief in a positive attitude towards workers’ health.

Within the context of low levels of awareness of programmes for improving employee wellbeing, SMEs and the private sector are already less likely to offer provision, which itself is key to retention.

The importance of workplace wellbeing is clearly underpinned by a business case – particularly in times when a competitive edge is likely to come from retaining and engaging employees – yet when in adopting guidelines to support psychological health, our research at Salford University has shown that one third of organisations are aware of relevant NICE guidelines but only 12% have implemented it.

This cocktail of unpredictable Brexit ingredients – amid pre-COVID forecasts of an economic downturn – creates a host of challenges for organisations and in turn for HR practitioners.

It seems more important than ever that we plug organisations into the guidance designed to improve the mental health of the workforce. By making space in strategic board and everyday online team meetings for meaningful discussion about wellbeing, monitoring staff mental health, training managers in spotting and sensitively handling issues, as well as clear signposting of sources of support for all employees, we can keep much-needed conversations going.

If the future is to be healthier, failing to raise awareness of issues of discrimination and workforce wellbeing is not the way forward. There is much work to do in ensuring the duty of care is fulfilled for the psychological welfare of all sections of the workforce.

Ashley Weinberg, senior lecturer in psychology, University of Salford

This piece first appeared in the November/December 2020 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.