Brendan Street, Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing, Nuffield Health, discusses how employers can support the mental health of their workforce, including their anxieties, as they return to the office following COVID-19.
A recent poll revealed that even when lockdown is eased, many Brits still feel “uncomfortable” about going back to their normal lives. According to ONS statistics, nearly half of over-16s currently rate their anxiety as “high”, more than double the numbers since 2019.
It’s not yet clear what further actions will occur, but organisations need to think carefully about how they will prepare for the possibility of returning to work and how they can support employee mental health post-lockdown.
First steps and legal considerations
Anxiety often stems from the unknown. Anxious employees repeatedly ask themselves ‘what if?’ and focus on problems before they have happened.
Sharing actionable steps on how the business is planning to safeguard their health and how they can protect themselves when back in their old work environment will help rationalise this issue.
Make sure company health protocols are clear and accessible. This means keeping staff informed on the steps you are taking as a business and giving advice on how to stay hygienic and safe around others.
Ensure payroll staff are notified when furlough will end and when employees should be back on full pay. The exact timeframes need to be communicated widely to staff and as soon as possible, which will help alleviate anxiety surrounding reduced personal finances.
Staff should be given a reasonable notice period for when they will be expected to return to ‘normal’ work conditions. Many will need to plan for childcare or adjust working hours if schools have reopened, so the more notice you give, the less you add to an existing list of worries.
Communicate emotional support
Some employees may have anxiety about going back to work, commuting on public transport, or have experienced difficult situations during lockdown.
Have one-to-one meetings, if possible, with every employee – or with set teams, if your company is large – virtually, before they return to work. You should encourage them to share any concerns they have and address any worries about their physical and mental wellbeing.
This assures employees of the emotional wellbeing support you will provide, like employee assistance programmes (EAPS) or how you are scheduling your business’ wellness action plan for the coming months.
Assess your old workspace
Businesses reopening this week may choose to maintain some elements of social distancing post lockdown. Before employees return, review your previous work environment, and think about how to continue these measures effectively.
Think about whether staff will be able to keep a two-metre distance between each other. If not, you will need to adjust the layout of your workspace and consider other practicalities like how you will hold team meetings and maintain good relationships with existing customers or clients.
If your workplace has been closed for a while, consider a deep clean, paying close attention to things like phones and keyboards, so employees feel safer when they arrive.
Make sure you have the right supplies in place. Health guidelines state the importance of basic hygiene measures like washing hands regularly, using hand sanitiser and disposable hand towels. Checking there are plenty of supplies for employees to use is the simplest way of helping relieve some of the worry.
Some industries may continue to wear PPE, like face masks, when they return to work. If this is the case, you should be prepared and ensure you have a supply staff can use and ask them to bring in their own masks if they have them already.
Think about vulnerable staff
It may still not be possible for many vulnerable staff to return fully to their workspaces. It is important for wellbeing and resilience to ensure connectivity for members of staff who are still self-isolating. Those forced to continue working remotely may face psychological hazards linked to increased loneliness and isolation.
Risk assess for these and consider increased connectivity through, for example, the use of virtual water coolers so that teams can stay connected.
You may also have employees who have suffered the bereavement of a friend or family member who are not in the right emotional state to return to work yet. There is no statutory right to bereavement leave, but responsible businesses should be sympathetic to requests for additional time off if required.
There are plenty of wellness options that can be offered to staff remotely, too, including cognitive behaviour therapy, which can be delivered safely and effectively by phone, video or email for flexibility and privacy.
Other types of therapy, which are also safe, effective, and accessible remotely, include counselling such as relationship, bereavement, interpersonal therapy, and access to psychiatric assessments.
Brendan Street is a BABCP accredited cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist and supervisor, fully qualified EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing) practitioner, and NMC registered mental health nurse. Brendan has over 25 years of experience in treating mental health problems in the NHS and private sector.