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A mentally healthy workplace: seven ways businesses can spot and tackle ‘return to work’ anxiety

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By Dr Lynne Green, Chief Clinical Officer / Consultant Clinical Psychologist at Kooth plc

 

The official ending of lockdown restrictions in England on 19 July – so called “Freedom Day” – has set in motion the plans for a return to the office by a number of businesses. It’s been reported that up to 50% of employees have readopted their daily commute into the office but it would be fair to say that not all businesses are suggesting five-days a week straight away. Instead, some are choosing a staggered approach and others are adopting a permanent ‘hybrid’ way of working.

For those who’ve spent more than a year working at home – often on the kitchen table – or have been furloughed for a long period of time it is the beginning of a return to some form of ‘normality’. The easing of restrictions has received a warm welcome for those employees simply looking forward to the end of back-to-back Zoom calls and a start to being able to interact with colleagues in real life. And we cannot forget the impact that Covid-19 has had on the mental health of the nation. According to the recent Kooth Pulse 2021 report, during the pandemic working age adults using Kooth’s platform experienced higher rates of sleep difficulties, suicidal thoughts, self-harm issues, and sadness – which saw a 129% increase in July 2020 alone.

While a return to work may be a celebration, or even a lifeline, for some employees, there are others who remain anxious. This includes those who are clinically vulnerable or living in close proximity to someone who is clinically vulnerable, and others who simply do not feel ready to give up all restrictions including social distancing or the wearing of masks.

However, the anxiety some employees are feeling is not just about the risk of catching Covid-19. It is about experiencing new things or returning to activities they haven’t done in a long time, such as the return to a busy office after months working from home, being on public transport or in a crowded space, and physical contact – a simple hug can provoke social anxiety.

It is vitally important that those employees who are anxious do not feel embarrassed or under pressure to ‘just be grateful’ that lockdown restrictions have been lifted. Collectively, employers must make sure employee wellbeing is a top priority as they return to the office. And as a duty of care, employers need to be mindful of those who may be feeling higher levels of anxiety.

Employers must pay attention to potential indicators of distress or signs of not coping amongst their workforces. However, this can often be a minefield for employers. Being attuned to noticing if they are feeling on edge, restless, withdrawn, overtired is helpful – these can all be signs that an employee is struggling to cope with changes to their daily routine. Overcompensating through an unusual increase in productivity might also be a warning sign – the key thing here is a change in usual presentation. Anxiety can also present itself through physical symptoms, so employers should be aware of any increased absences due to physical ailments, along with communications regarding poor sleep or symptoms of panic such as sweating, breathlessness and avoidance of activities.

Everyone is different, but when noticing any changes the first port of call for an employer is to try and talk openly with the employee. It’s essential that a safe space is provided where the employee feels that they have time to talk and will be listened to – somewhere they can share their worries when feeling anxious, without judgement and fear of stigma, can really help. While simply talking can sometimes feel daunting to employees, it is a crucial first step to addressing difficult emotions.

Some of the practical tips’ employers can implement to support employee mental wellbeing as they return to the office include:

  1. Keep employees informed: ensure there is no ambiguity on, or miscommunication surrounding, the ‘return to work’ plan, timeline and policies. If things change, let them know.
  2. Lead by example: as an employer, it’s important to set a good example and ‘practice what you preach’. If employees are being asked to be in the workplace 60% of the time, make sure leaders are too.
  3. Communication is a two-way street: provide a safe space for employees to raise their concerns and fears about the return to work, i.e., an anonymous pulse survey or employee engagement platform/app and/or mental health first aider.
  4. Be flexible and fair: ensure that employees are being listened to and concerns and fears that employees have on the return to work are being address. And adjust plans and policies to make individual employees feel safe and secure.
  5. Provide mental health training for all leaders and managers: on how to identify and respond to mental health issues and concerns from themselves and employees.
  6. Schedule regular one-on-one check-ins with employees: go beyond the perfunctory ‘how are you’ and ask open-ended questions to really find out what’s concerning employees and how as an employer you can support them.
  7. Signpost employees to your mental health support: ensure all employees are familiar with mental health programmes, Employee Assistance Programmes and any anonymous digital health services the company provides.

The pandemic continues to present significant challenges for businesses of all sizes and across all industries – the return to work is only one element. But as a semblance of certainty returns to our daily lives and business operations, it is vital that employee welfare remains at the forefront. Being mindful of employees who are feeling anxious and adapting plans for those who need to take the return to the office at a slower pace, is an important component of every ‘return to work’ strategy and plan. Looking out for signs of potential distress and anxiety, and addressing them effectively and with compassion, will help ensure all employees receive the support they need.

Dr Lynne Green, Chief Clinical Officer / Consultant Clinical Psychologist at Kooth plc

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