Supporting employee mental health as they return to work

Supporting employee mental health as they return to work

Adam Saville
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Four actionable steps for employers to take post-lockdown

Since Wednesday, following confirmation from the UK Prime Minister, the national population has been allowed to take unlimited exercise outside and people who cannot work from home should return to the workplace, avoiding public transport.

Boris Johnson mentioned the next step - "at the earliest by 1 June" - will involve some primary pupils returning to school and the potential reopening of some shops.

However, a recent poll by Ipsos MORI revealed even when lockdown is eased, many Brits now feel "uncomfortable" 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.

As a result, Brendan Street, professional head of emotional wellbeing at Nuffield Health, has urged organisations to think carefully about how they will prepare for the possibility of returning to work with some restrictions still remaining and how they can support employee mental health post-lockdown. He has suggested four actionable measures.

  1. First steps and legal considerations

Street said: "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."

He added that employers should ensure payroll staff are notified when furlough will end, and when employees should be back on full pay. Exact timeframes should be communicated widely to staff and as soon as possible to help alleviate anxiety surrounding reduced personal finances.

Staff should also be given a reasonable period of notice for when they will be expected to return to ‘normal' work conditions, Street also advised, as many will need to plan for childcare or adjust working hours if schools have reopened.

  1. Communicate emotional support

Street said 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," he said. "You should encourage them to share any concerns they have and address any worries about their physical and mental wellbeing."

He added it is important to assure employees of the emotional wellbeing support provided, such as employee assistance programmes (EAPs) and company wellness action plan scheduling.

  1. Assess your old workspace

He said, those businesses reopening this coming week will have to maintain some elements of social distancing post-lockdown. "Before employees return, review your previous work environment, and think about how you can enforce these measures effectively," explained Street.

"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."

Street said employers need to make sure they 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, supporting staff in staying hygienic in a busy office," he added.

Meanwhile, some industries may need 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, as well as asking them to bring in their own masks if they have them already," Street added.

  1. Think about vulnerable staff

Even though the government has begun its phased return to work for UK businesses, it will still not be possible for many vulnerable staff to return, Street explained. "It is important for wellbeing and resilience to ensure connectivity for members of staff who are still self-isolating."

He added 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 teams can stay connected," he said.

For employees that may have suffered the bereavement of a friend or family member, there is no statutory right to bereavement leave, however Street said responsible businesses should be sympathetic to requests for additional time off if required.

He said: "There are plenty of wellness options which 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."

He said other types of therapy, which are also accessible remotely, include counselling (such as relationship and bereavement), interpersonal therapy, and access to psychiatric assessments.

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