The Government’s latest advice on Covid-Secure workplaces covers everything from PPE to cleaning procedures and staggering shifts. And yet, there is no mention at all of any mental health considerations in the guidance.
With research indicating that there are high levels of anxiety about returning to the office at the moment, what is it that you need to look out for as you start bringing people back to work? What are the things we need to be aware of in terms of safeguarding the mental wellbeing of your people?
Reluctance to come into the office
If your company policy involves a phased return to work, you might face reluctance from some employees, especially in the shorter term. Whilst support for going back to the office in the future is high, there is considerably less for returning to work at the moment. Additionally, those who can work from home, according to Government advice, should still be working from home. But as we begin to return, try and plug-in to your employees’ concerns. In terms of mental health, a huge part of the return to work puzzle is anxiety. We would recommend conducting anonymous surveys to collect data on people’s honest concerns about the return to work. It is important that the first people back in the office do not feel like guinea pigs, and that their concerns are taken seriously.
Taking or needing a lot of time off
More and more we’re normalising the idea of taking ‘mental health days’ where needed. However, there is a long way to go and many people still don’t feel comfortable asking for this. Whether working from home or in the office, if an employee is needing time off – just a handful of times, or more regularly – it’s worth checking in to see what’s going on. Again, it’s all in the approach. This isn’t an attack where they have to justify the time off, but a conversation to understand if there is are health concerns or mental health concerns underpinning their need for time off, and if so, to open a dialogue about how to address any issues rather than jumping to disciplinary action.
Confusion, distraction, lack of focus
Often, when we’re feeling overwhelmed, we tend to suffer from confusion, distraction or an inability to focus. This does not necessarily signal a mental health issue in and of itself, but alongside other signs, can be an indication that someone is struggling. In particular, lapses in memory are a more noticeable sign of overwhelm. With people in the office having to think about social distancing, one way systems, extra hygiene procedures and so on – it’s not really surprising that focus levels might take a bit of a hit. But if you notice that someone is really struggling, it might be time to have a conversation.
Nervousness about mixing with colleagues
Socially mixing with other people – even colleagues we know well – is emotionally fraught at the moment. There are likely to be moments of worry, or even anger and irritation, where colleagues who might not respect social distancing measures will cause friction as we may feel that they are putting us at risk. Managing these kinds of situations through having a clear, explicit and robust social distancing code is essential in order to contain the spread of Covid-19; but also to help people feel safe and minimise these moments of conflict. Your workforce should feel part of a community based on mutual respect and care – this underpins good mental health. Maintaining social distancing is a huge part of this, so do not leave it to your employees to have to remind others. Be active in promoting and enforcing it; and model the behaviour yourself. Remember, many of your employees will have vulnerable people in their households.
A change in anxiety levels
After working in isolation for such a long time, and now returning to the workplace, this is uncharted territory in terms of mental health. People that had previously not felt anxious at work may now find that they are starting to struggle. Any behavioural indications of anxiety in your team members could be due to any number of factors that relate to poor mental health: social anxiety, anxieties over cleanliness in workspaces, concerns about the future, struggles over maintaining social distancing, worries about commuting to and from work, anxiety over job loss and financial strain; to name just a few. In fact, research from 2019 suggested that in the UK, 77% of workers admit that money worries were affecting their ability to do their job. This shows the diverse range of issues that contribute to poor mental health at work – again, the key is to discuss the factors affecting your team. There is always something you can do. In the case of financial worries, you could offer online personal finance courses or seminars on the furlough scheme and the guidelines around it, or give regular updates about the state of the business and the expected future actions. If there are concerns over containing the spread of the virus at work, then send out information on cleaning protocols and invite questions and concerns to be discussed.