Managing mental health in the workplace while transitioning to office

Following the uncertainty of the pandemic, many workers have found themselves having to go back to the office

CoachHub’s Windy Tshepiso Maledu discusses the impact on mental health and how company leadership can support their employees as they transition back to the office.

The pandemic has certainly been a learning curve for most people. And if there was anything we learned about the most during this complete societal upheaval, it was about ourselves. At a time of increased stress and anxiety for many, people had the time to ponder their true passions in life and took this opportunity to review their priorities. But the process of returning to the office or starting over or resetting a career path, especially in a turbulent job market, is not always easy. How leadership helps their employees navigate this journey will be the key to helping them transition.

Many had their lives upturned by being made redundant or furloughed amid the uncertainty of the first few months of the pandemic. Leading up to June 2021, one in four UK employees had been furloughed at some point since the pandemic began. For those remaining at companies who were not furloughed, the increased workload created a significant amount of stress and prompted career breaks or re-evaluations.

As economies reopened with the resumption of some normal activities, questions arose about the potential return to formal office environments and the implications for employees whilst COVID-19 remains active in the community.

The mental health toll and how leadership can support

During the pandemic, many were also faced with the unfortunate reality that many of our relatives or ourselves might fall ill – leading us to take medical or compassionate leave. These distinct reasons to take time away from work have an equally unique way of impacting mental wellbeing upon returning to work. 

The mental health toll of the pandemic will likely persist for years to come. Anxiety and depression are high because of the isolation and grief that some have experienced over the course of the past two years. Globally, the number of people who reported dealing with negative mental health impacts of lockdown measures soared—making the transition back to how things were even more difficult. 

Being put back into social situations can also feel foreign after months of not interacting with colleagues. In the new world of hybrid work, the lines between work and home can blur, leading to quicker burnout as we struggle to keep up the pace and meet the high expectations that come with starting a new job. Research has also indicated that new employees and women are at an increased risk for Zoom Fatigue, a form of burnout that became renowned during the pandemic.

There are some things we can do to combat this. Employees should not be afraid to speak up about how they are feeling. It’s important, to be honest about how much work they can realistically handle and feel comfortable communicating this to managers within their organisations. Leaders must also share their challenges. Authentic leadership can cultivate trust and improve employee engagement and performance. When leaders send emails after 11 pm or dial in when they are on holiday shows they are not disconnecting. Leaders can role model mentally healthy behaviours that allow team members to prioritise their self-care and set healthy boundaries.

How we spend our time outside of work also greatly impacts our mental health. It’s important to take time for ourselves. Participating in a few side projects or hobbies can be incredibly rewarding– this could be exercising a bit each day, gardening, journaling, or any other activity that allows us to switch off from work. Having a clear delineation between work and home life will help your employees learn how to balance their time as they ease back into work after a long break.  

How company leadership can help employees reach their true potential 

Leadership and management also play a critical role in helping transition back into the workplace after being away. It’s the role of management to provide employees with mental health support and the tools needed to succeed amid a challenging transition. Emotional intelligence is the foundation of leadership. Leaders must be aware of the roadblocks that team members might be experiencing that could stunt their progress and have open communication about this. It’s impossible to manage what you don’t acknowledge. Leaders must acknowledge what their team members are going through in order to support them effectively.

There is a sea of potential within each person that is waiting to be discovered. Sometimes, we just need a little help to bring that potential out. Leaders can discuss employees’ strengths in regular performance conversations and assign tasks based on employee strengths. Through coaching, leaders can facilitate conversations to develop their ideas about what career opportunities are ahead of them. Sometimes, it might take a bit of time and support to realise the possibilities are limitless for what each person can do. 

This is a season for leadership to emerge. We learn leadership from people around us, not from job titles, and as we each embark on our unique journies following the height of the pandemic, the time is now to discover what type of leader you can be and the impact that will have on the people you lead.

Conclusion: Opportunities abound 

While there may seem to be many roadblocks in our path when returning to new normal, there is also a sea of opportunities to reinvent ourselves, which can be incredibly empowering. The past two years have been trying for many, but also a golden opportunity to discover autonomy, self-worth and explore true passions in life. It’s the crucial role of leadership within the company to support mental health and help workers empower themselves to overcome obstacles and transition well.

By Windy Tshepiso Maledu, Senior Behavioural Scientist, CoachHub UKI  

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