COVID-19: Employee mental health on returning to work – we can’t read minds, so communication is key

Returning to work, whether that means starting work again after a period of furlough, or returning to the office, will involve change for many; and that may lead to worry and potentially stress. This article considers the practical, proactive steps employers can take to help staff returning to the workplace.

Some employees will face practical difficulties, for example around caring responsibilities and commuting (with many schools remaining closed to children outside of key workers, and for those that are open having very limited provision for certain year groups).

Other employees may be worried  in relation to any potential exposure to the virus, after perhaps understanding that 'staying safe' meant 'staying home'. Some may also feel anxious about increased social contact involved in sharing a workplace with others and interacting with customers and clients. Whilst there are clear advantages to social interaction for mental wellbeing, and it is also an important part of businesses and the economy getting back on their feet, it may seem daunting for some.

Steps employers can take to assist wellbeing of staff asked to attend work

Consider mental health as part of your health and safety risk assessments 

Employers have a duty to protect their employees’ health, safety and welfare. This includes their mental health, safety and welfare.

Employers should undertake risk assessments as staff return to work to identify risks in the workplace resulting from coronavirus, and put in place appropriate measures to control those risks. What is appropriate will vary from business to business and there is guidance published by the government for employers to help with this, including in relation to employee mental health.

It is also important to carry out a risk assessment for employees who will continue working from home and to include in that consideration around mental health. For more information about this, please see our separate alert covering homeworkers: Mental Health and Home Workers– out of sight out of mind.

Be clear about who is returning when, and why

It is important to take care not to discriminate against staff in relation to their return to work. For example, you should have a clear rationale for who is or isn't asked to return to the office and make sure that decisions around this can be explained.

When requiring employees to return to work, you should consider a reasonable period of notice to give employees time to make necessary arrangements.

Communicate. Communicate. Communicate

Where employees are returning to work, there needs to be a clear dialogue between employer and employee so that any concerns and issues can be discussed and managed. This may require consideration around flexibility and understanding on both sides.

On a broader note on employee communication, don't assume that your workforce will think 'no news is good news'. When there is already so much unknown, regular updates go a long way to providing some certainty and comfort. Look for opportunities to get employee buy-in on proposed changes. Consulting and/or canvassing opinions (for instance through staff surveys) helps in relation to employees feeling involved. Employees may also give some useful insights and suggestions to help the company adapt to the evolving norm.

Hold return-to-work meetings

We recommend holding one-on-one return-to-work meetings, where practical, to help re-orientate employees into the workplace, which may be working differently as a result of coronavirus. This will be a good opportunity for employees to share any issues or concerns with their managers.   These can take place before returning – over video links – and also after return.

Continue to discuss any adjustments or areas of flexibility needed which need to be considered. It will be important to document any arrangements agreed and be consistent as to what flexibility you offer staff, where possible. Support your managers by having support in place, where possible, that they can direct queries to, and consider providing them with additional training.

Cultivate your culture

People feel more secure and are more likely to work enthusiastically and productively when they feel that they are a valued member of the team.  Somewhat unexpectedly, many people have got to know their colleagues and clients better as a result of the 'lockdown' than they did previously. Video calling into people's homes, being interrupted by children and pets, and having a shared experience together has in many cases brought us closer together. Whereas in the office we may ask someone in passing about their weekend or how their workload is, conversations now extend to asking about the wellbeing of people and their loved ones.

As people begin returning to the office, consider steps you can take to continue to bring people together – whilst physically distancing in the office and connecting with those still working at home.

Don't forget the employees who never 'locked down'. It is important to remember employees who have continued to attend the workplace over the past few months. Even though they have been continuing to attend work, it has been far from 'business as usual' for them.

Promote access to support  

Employers may provide access to support services such as free counselling through an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). If you do, make sure this is advertised well and staff are encouraged to use the services as they return to work. There are also a number of free resources online specifically relating to the Covid-19 that you could refer staff to.

Make sure employees know where to go and who to talk to internally as well if they are experiencing difficulties with mental health. If you have mental health champions, allies or mental health first aiders, make sure they have the latest information on the impact of Covid-19 on mental health. Consider whether you can offer training or up-skilling for those who are providing mental health support to other employees.

The working world has changed almost overnight and both employers and workers have had to adapt to rapidly that change. With the pressures of adjusting to new ways of working and stress and anxiety caused by the coronavirus pandemic affecting many people, having a focus on mental health becomes ever more important.

If you have any questions or would like advice on any of the issues raised here, please get in touch with your usual Clyde & Co contact.

Written by Chris Holme and Ellie Domigan