The theme of this year’s Stress Awareness Month is ‘Regaining Connectivity, Certainty and Control’. This has never been more relevant as working remotely leads to severe cases of burnout and people feeling increasingly isolated and disengaged.
In fact, according to research by the Stress Management Society, 65% of people in the UK were identified as having felt more stressed since the Covid-19 restrictions began in March 2020. The three key causes for concern are feelings of disconnection, uncertainty and a worrying loss of control.
As a result, UK businesses will need to take steps to overcome the challenges they have encountered over the past year, while supporting their employees’ return to a workplace culture which is, quite possibly, forever altered.
There’s little doubt that exchanging an office environment and regular interaction with colleagues for hours spent alone at home in front of a screen will lead to mental health issues and question marks around wellbeing. This, in turn, is likely to impact on overall productivity and morale.
There are many factors to consider including the impact of the lockdown and ongoing restrictions such as social distancing. Despite the vaccine rollout gathering pace, some employees will still be worried about contracting the virus, others will be anxious about family and friends or will have suffered coronavirus-related bereavements.
There will also be fears about job security, returning to the workplace, including health and safety aspects, using public transport for commuting, financial concerns and risk of redundancy. Some employees are currently working longer or more irregular hours and many are combining work with home-schooling and other family responsibilities, leading to a poor work-life balance. There are also potential mental health implications stemming from being placed on furlough.
Early research into the health impacts of lockdown including findings of fatigue, musculoskeletal conditions, the aforementioned poor work-life balance, reduced exercise and increased alcohol consumption. In relation to mental health specifically, employees were reporting reduced motivation, loss of purpose, anxiety and isolation.
In fact, the mental health charity Mind found that more than half of adults (60%) and over two thirds of young people (68%) said their mental health got worse during lockdown. Young people and those with pre-existing mental health conditions were particularly affected and employees who had been furloughed also reported a slight decline in their wellbeing compared to others.
As lockdown restrictions lessen over the coming months, business owners need to be mindful as to how they reintroduce people back into the workplace following months of isolation, and place an emphasis on promoting good wellbeing.
They need to identify who is perhaps unwilling to return to the office, those who have a permanent need to work on a flexible basis and anyone who has a long-term issue as a result of the health crisis.
They will then need to implement measures to support employees in regaining an effective work-life balance and addressing fears about returning to work, right through to providing support for mental health conditions. Employers should act now to put necessary support in place.
Here are the ways in which business leaders can think about supporting their staff and relieving stress levels as they return to work.
A chance to talk
Senior leaders should welcome workers back to the office in person and offer everyone the opportunity to have a one-to-one conversation over the course of the subsequent days to gauge how they’re feeling and the personal issues they’ve faced in recent months. Doing so will help to make the transition more seamless and means that managers can be attuned to the thoughts and feelings of their workers.
They could even go one step further and offer counselling sessions with an occupational therapist or psychologist and even private medical care to those that need it after this imposed hiatus.
A focus on HR
Managers should be thoroughly briefed on the potential mental health implications of the virus and their specific roles and responsibilities in relation to supporting staff.
They can do so by communicating regularly on wellbeing and mental health advice and support this with a range of activities which encourage physical, mental, financial and social wellbeing. This will help to steer organisations towards a culture where it is acceptable to talk about and seek help in relation to poor mental health.
If employees are unequivocally needed in the workplace, those who started work for the organisation in the time just prior to, or even during, lockdown may need a re-induction to help them feel connected and engaged. This could also help to cover any health and safety changes in line with the government’s Covid-19 workplace safety guidelines.
Recognise the signs
If the symptoms of poor mental health and wellbeing are well understood at all levels within an organisation, this can support early intervention and the opportunity to take action to prevent the situation escalating. Sharing information about mental health can also enable employees to identify signs and seek support.
Signs may include working longer hours than normal, increased absence, changes in mood, withdrawal, confusion, anger, a change in performance levels and disruptive behaviour.
Where signs are identified, managers need to set up an open and honest conversation with the employee. This could be a phone call or online meeting to check in with the individual in question. They need to ask them how they are, share any subsequent observations and provide support where possible. HR should provide guidance on how to broker these conversations.
In an advance of any planned return to work, rather than wait for employees to express concerns, managers can be proactive, by encouraging them to contact their team members to discuss any concerns that they may have.
Effective communication plans detailing how the organisation will be approaching the return to work and prioritising the health and safety of employees will also help to reduce concerns and fears.
Make the return as seamless as possible
The complex nature of wellbeing and mental health means that there is no single solution for supporting the return to the workplace, other than that it should be gradual and phased. It is likely that many employees will continue to work from home for now. Without question though, employees will be returning to work for the first time in several months and this is sure to be a daunting prospect.
Where employees are required to return to the workplace, they may find themselves working different hours or days to allow for effective social distancing. Some activities will remain curtailed. As we know, some employees never left work, continuing to operate in either essential or key roles under a range of difficult circumstances. The ongoing threat of the virus also means that many employees will be working while retaining care or childcare responsibilities and have other personal issues which may have an impact on their mental health. Even if an employee is not actually experiencing poor mental health, they may have personal concerns about returning to a physical workplace.
Companies should write a detailed communication plan covering practical issues such as hygiene and approach to maintaining social distancing in order to allay concerns. They should also provide manager training on mental health conditions, including the signs and symptoms. They can make sure that managers are aware of the particular wellbeing and mental health implications of coronavirus, including on vulnerable groups and furloughed employees.
Managers could also adopt flexible working policies for quicker decisions and increased opportunities to change or reduce hours. Promoting learning and upskilling, providing training and reviewing workloads can also help to boost morale. Wherever possible, senior leaders should be encouraged to include messaging about wellbeing and mental health in wider communications about the organisational response to the pandemic. They can also aim to establish an internal network of wellbeing or mental health champions who can support the organisation.
If you have any concerns of your own or would like to talk about your return to work requirements, please get in touch with the MERJE team: email@example.com.