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Returning to work and employee mental health

With employees potentially returning to the workplace, we take a look at what will need to be done to tackle a number of mental health challenges – both for people and the companies they work for. Part three of our mental health series.

With the second lockdown now over and the tier system fully in play, some employers are finding themselves able to open and trade again. This has allowed some employers to bring their workforce back into the workplace – some of which may have been off work on furlough leave since the pandemic began in March 2020. There are other employees that have been in and out of work and face very uncertain futures.

The employee viewpoint

For many employees, the thought of returning to the workplace probably comes with mixed emotions.

Some employees may be happy to return to work as it indicates job security and helps mitigate against any financial strains that come with furlough pay. As a result of returning to work, those employees worried about finances and whether their job is safe may feel better and more in control of their livelihoods. Employees may welcome a change of scene and the social aspect of the workplace, especially from a wellbeing point of view.

However, for most, the end of lockdown and furlough leave will not be a choice. Some employees may feel they are being asked to return to the workplace too soon. Some may feel it is too late. Others may have a whole host of anxiety-based feelings and frustration. Employees who have to travel on public transport or have caring responsibilities at home may feel unsafe and will look to their employer for support.

It is likely that many employees will want to strike a balance between coming back to work and managing their personal lives more. Furlough leave gave many individuals the chance to reflect on their working life and to rediscover their personal life and passions outside of work. It allowed employees to gain some headspace from their normal busy working life and for some, this may have been the mental health recuperation they needed. These employees may be worried about returning to work and how it will impact their mental health if their schedules become busy and hard to manage again. Employers need to be alive to this and start having conversations with returning employees early on to understand any concerns.

Working parents are also likely be concerned about the precarious childcare position they find themselves in. Said employees are likely to be concerned about the impact of school/nursery bubbles collapsing and how this will impact on their ability to work.

The employer viewpoint

What the above demonstrates is that there isn’t a one size fits all type of employee or mental health state relating to returning to work, for example, after a period of furlough leave. Employers need to be alive to this in order to manage and look after its workforces’ mental health as a whole.

When calling employees back to work, employers will have legitimate business reasons for them to be there. Many employers were negatively impacted by the pandemic and will want to get their businesses moving again as quickly as possible.

Senior people within businesses will have been affected by the pandemic – and them sharing their experiences can bea very effective way of connecting with the wider workforce, especially when discussing mental health issues.

Some employers will have had employees working constantly throughout the pandemic, with others furloughed. These employers are likely to be keen to integrate all employees again to ensure there is no separation or divide between the two populations. It should be recognised that both have played vital but different roles in helping the business react and survive the pandemic.

The flexibility that has been shown by the employer and employees alike is likely to lead to an increase in flexible working requests. The employer may want to open the dialogue in this respect to demonstrate that it is supportive of flexibility and the benefits it can bring from a mental health perspective.

What can employers do?

Employers should approach any return to work from furlough leave the same way they would approach a normal return to work (for example, after maternity leave or a long term sickness absence). Communication will be key and employers should ensure they are talking to employees as early as possible ahead of their return. Employers should explain what measures are in place in the workplace to ensure it is safe and also listen to any concerns their returning employees might have. Things will have inevitably changed, and this should be communicated. The pandemic has forced people to be resilient, but it does not change the fact that people generally do not like change and that uncertainty can increase anxiety levels. In a workplace, it is imperative that employees are aware of the new rules and understand what is expected of them.

Most employers have a range of resources already in place to look after employee wellbeing. Examples include employee assistance programs, mental health champions and/or first aiders within the workplace. Employers should locate the details of these resources and share them with employees returning to work and ensure that they are easily accessible. In the event that no such resources exist then employers will need to ensure that management are aware of their obligations to support their teams and/or consider introducing new initiatives to support their workforce’s mental health.

Any concerns or worries about the return to work should be addressed at the outset to prevent them from spiralling out of control or going unnoticed and consequently unaddressed by the employer down the line. Employers need to be reflecting on their workplace culture and their openness. The more welcoming a culture, the more likely employees will want to return to the workplace and will feel safe and comfortable to do so. Having an engaged workforce where people feel safe and supported will greatly improve productivity.

The next article in this series will focus on how employers can support flexible working requests without compromising business continuity and employee wellbeing.

Disclaimer

This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given.

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