22nd May 2020

Don’t forget employee mental health as they return to work

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If your sector is welcoming staff back to work, remember that employees will have different attitudes to the return. For some people, getting back into a routine, meeting their colleagues again (albeit while socially distancing) and even dealing with customers will be an enormous relief. However, there will be others, who will feel very anxious about the whole process.

Even under normal circumstances, around two thirds of people will suffer from some form of mental illness during their lifetime. However, life living with the threat of coronavirus (COVID-19) has placed all of us under additional stress which is likely to have an impact on mental health.

Even the most caring employers will not have an understanding of the personal circumstances and living arrangements of all their staff. They could have been living with additional pressures that add to stress and anxiety around job security, financial concerns, worries about their own health, the health of loved ones and perhaps being away from key family members during lockdown.

Writing in The Lancet Psychiatry recently, psychiatrists and psychologists warn that the pandemic could have a “profound” effect on people’s mental health – now and in the future. While it is difficult to predict exactly how the pandemic is impacting on mental health, one survey of just over a thousand people revealed worries about the effects of social isolation and financial difficulties. It suggests that the numbers of people with depression will increase.

Support employee mental health

Conscientious employers therefore, should be aware of their responsibilities and duty of care to staff, particularly, when working in a sector that is encouraging people to come back to work. Essentially, you should do all you reasonably can to support employee health, safety and wellbeing. In normal times, this means making sure the working environment is safe and carrying out risk assessments – as you can imagine, this is particularly relevant now.

Government guidance is clear, all businesses and workplaces ‘should make every reasonable effort to enable working from home as a first option.’ If that is not feasible then you should take other mitigating actions to reduce risk of transmission of the virus between staff and sector by sector advice is available on the government’s website.

Consult and talk to staff

In order to alleviate concerns you should be carrying out risk assessments as well as consulting with employees. In fact, government states that ‘the people who do the work are often the best people to understand the risks’ and therefore, any back to work strategy should be around consultation rather than imposition. Giving your employees a voice, providing them with choices about how they work will help to ease their concerns and anxiety.

It would be naive to assume your employees can return to work with a ‘business as usual’ mindset. They will need time to adjust and their familiar workplace may feel unfamiliar. You may need to consider a phased return to work or offer one-to-one return meetings. You should develop communication tools that clearly explain the new way of working which could include posters around the workspace to intranet video messaging.

Managing a valued and supportive environment that allows staff to discuss concerns will help everyone deal with what are quite natural anxieties. Individuals will respond differently and employers may see staff who previously didn’t have a mental health condition experience challenges that impact on their mental health. The theme of Mental Health Awareness Week 2020 is kindness – it’s a useful word for employers to use in their return to work strategy.

For any Broadstone clients that have Employee Assistance Programmes, now would be an opportune time to check what mental health support is included in your package so that you can prompt your staff to access them. If your business does not have health and well-being schemes in place, now is a good time to talk to our benefit consultants about what will help your teams during these unprecedented times.