Going back to the work environment

The Mental Health Foundation is part of the national mental health response during the coronavirus outbreak. Government advice designed to keep us safe is under constant review and will be different depending on where you live: more details and up to date information here.

During the course of the last sixteen months, one of the areas of everyday life most affected by the pandemic has been our work. Before the pandemic we were already seeing the nature of work changing and the pandemic seems to have accelerated that change. 

Whether we have been working from home, on furlough, or working throughout, the way we work has had to change. For some people, the pandemic has led to redundancy or a career change. Whatever our experience, there have been major changes to our work-life balance, the relationships with have at and with work, and our plans and aspirations going forward. 

As lockdown eases, or comes to an end, our working lives are changing again. 

There has been a lot of talk about the ‘new normal’ – but we are quite a distance from knowing how things will settle down in terms of restrictions and adaptations in our lives and our work. It seems likely there will be some permanent changes in our working lives, but also that we may need to live with uncertainty for a while longer. 

We must be alert to ‘Returnism’ – the impact that resuming after lockdown will pose to our mental health. We know there will be an effect, and that this will vary.

In this article we offer some tips for employers supporting staff back to work – and some tips for individuals about to make the jump back to a more familiar working life. 

Readjusting to the Working Environment

Know your own mind

Try and work out how you are doing – what are you looking forward to about returning to business as usual? What seems difficult? 

Recognise how your feelings and emotions are affected by circumstances and restrictions, and how you feel about restrictions lifting. Try and keep a note daily of things that have gone well, and things that have been hard. Talk things through with a partner, friend, or a colleague. 

Make a plan

It might help to plan for the first couple of weeks. Don’t try and do too much and build in a lot of rewards and time to do things you know boost your mental health. 

You might want to build in strategies to push through tricky bits – like the commute, public interaction, or busy places. Headphones for the commute with a favourite podcast or playlist, meeting up with a colleague to walk in the door, or a coffee/lunch buddy are all ideas. You may want to discuss flexible working, or adjustments to your work too – like travelling off peak to avoid crowds.

Follow advice on masks, distancing, and testing

Most legal restrictions are due to end in England in the coming weeks, with the rest of the UK following later in the summer. Even so, people will still be encouraged to test themselves regularly and there may be times when masks or social distancing are still required. 

Hygiene measures like hand washing make good sense for avoiding tummy bugs and flu anyway – but you may also have restrictions on contact and distancing in your workplace.  

Do your best to consider others

Many of us haven’t been around colleagues and a workplace for a while. It might take a bit of time to adjust – many organisations will be developing completely new cultures and when we are all nervous or anxious, tempers can be short and judgement fast. 

Some colleagues may be very nervous about restrictions ending – and in some cases that may be because of personal experience, or because vaccination isn’t an option for them or someone close to them. Respect the boundaries people set around things like handshaking, keeping a distance, or not coming along to social events or in person meetings. Set your own boundaries too but remember to test your limits too. 

Try not to judge other people’s behaviours too harshly – whether that is people’s choices around mask wearing on public transport or the noise your colleague makes eating soup at their desk. Lift up your colleagues whenever you can. Listen. Be an ally.

Enjoy the company of colleagues – but don’t forget people that are still working at home

For many people, getting back to a dedicated workplace is going to be exciting and rewarding. For some people though, it will be difficult, or something to be endured. For many office workers, some kind of hybrid is going to be the norm. 

Do what you can to plan your diary to make the most of quiet time at home, and active time in the office – but also bear in mind that some people can’t come into the office or don’t want to. Try not to exclude people who aren’t in the office – or make assumptions about people’s home working situations. 

Be aware of how much going back takes out of you – make sure you rest

Any change is exhausting in the short term. If you are going back to commuting, or being around people for much of the day, there’s going to be a lot of adjustment. You’ll be tired. You’ll need your weekends and your evenings – and you’ll need your friends and the other things that keep you going.

Sleep is very important for our mental health but so is rest time. Book in some leave before Christmas, make sure you turn off after hours, and don’t try and be a superhero and brush off minor illnesses or tiredness.  

Find your new balance

Lockdown, furlough and home working changed so many lives. You may have found a new career or job and be meeting colleagues for the first time in person. You might have stopped travelling around the world and reconnected with your kids and partner – or you may have lost touch with the people you spend time with in a sports team, club or community group.

Try keep up the good habits you had in lockdown, and the awareness of your community and neighbourhood. Keep asking what you want from life and from your career and set some goals if that feels right.  Most of all be gentle and kind to yourself- find a way to get what you need for your mental health. 

Use Support

You’re probably going to want to talk about how it’s going – try and let off steam with your friends, family and colleagues. Lean on this network of support and be there for them too. Many people are facing hr same issues. Try to speak to your boss if there are concerns – as problems are usually easier to fix early. 

If your workplace offers support, like an employee assistance programme, or benefits like gym membership or childcare support use it if it might help. 

Supporting Staff to Return to Work

All employers have a duty of care to recognise and manage psychological hazards and to address stress at work – we all know about trip hazards and protective equipment at work – but far less is known about ways to protect our mental health from hazards like over work or bullying.

Whether your people are returning to work from furlough, returning to an uncertain future, returning to the workplace from home working, or returning after facing the direct consequences of the pandemic – there is a need to anticipate and prevent distress, and huge opportunity to stride forward in the way we address mental health in our workplaces. 

Involve staff in planning for return to work

Open, authentic communication is key during any period of change or uncertainty and is even more important at the moment where people may not have had their usual support structures. 

If possible, involve staff in planning for return – perhaps by encouraging managers to discuss hopes/fears/wishes with direct reports, or by using established consultation processes. 

Ask for ideas, test them, and adopt the best ones. 

Be mindful of, and compassionate around individual circumstances

Across the UK, millions of people have been directly affected by the pandemic – you may have lost staff members to Covid-19, staff may have been bereaved, had Covid- 19 and recovered or been affected by Long Covid, or been affected in many other ways. It’s very important that you are able to support those people and their colleagues. 

There is likely to be a period of catching-up and realisation of how challenging this has been. It may be a real opportunity to grow together as a team, but you may need to factor in a drop in performance as this period is managed.

Rebuilding social connections is going to be very important especially if you have welcomed new team members, or reorganised teams during the pandemic. 

Look at the support you provide your people and promote them again – employee assistance programmes, benefits, mental health allies, and self-care opportunities can all be offered and sharing stories – especially by senior staff can be useful. 

Make sure people are taking annual leave and recovery time

It’s important that you promote annual leave to recharge even if the instinct is not to - especially if the business faces uncertain times and people feel the need to get back to it – or if your people have worked right through offering key services to the public. 

As with any period of intense and unrelieved stress, when the stress is lifted, there is sometimes an impact on physical or mental health. 

You may see an increase in absence, signs of burnout amongst staff. Be prepared to support people through sick leave and rehabilitation including for long-covid and for stress or mental health related absence – both through absence management but also through coaching and personal development. 

If people have children, taking time off in the summer holidays can be very challenging for many, as mixing work and childcare has been stressful.  Even staying at home, without an obligation to be ‘switched on’ people may find that they can relax and recover even if they are tired of spending time at home with their families in some cases.

Equally, making people return to the office during the summer where childcare can be an issue may be hard for staff and a phased return could benefit them and their children. 

Place diversity and inclusion front and centre

Meaningful action on diversity and inclusion should be at the centre of plans for recovery. You may see an increase in staff disclosing protected characteristics – including mental health related disability as they realise the impact of unintended adjustments or find a workplace where more people have been open about feelings during lockdown. 

The death of George Floyd and the global focus on the Black Lives Matter movement has also brought racism and its impact on mental health into sharp focus. Combined with the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on people from BAME communities it is likely that BAME staff will (rightly) expect employers to address these concerns going forward. 

Consider whether people need to be in the office – or whether they could be if they want to

For many, working at home has been a revelation, with opportunities to work around other interests and commitments and to focus in different ways. Some have reported a decrease in anxiety and better finances without a commute. Equally, other people report that they miss the opportunity to put on their work identity, get out of the home and into the office, and crave coming back. And some of course have lost their jobs and are desperate to get back to an office or workplace environment.

As we make decision about flexibility and future needs, it can be tempting to assume that everyone can work from home or wants to. 

Home working has for many been something to endure – especially where housing may not be safe or spacious enough to work effectively, or where social connections at work are important at keeping loneliness at bay. This is an important consideration when property is a major expense for businesses facing challenging economic times, where reducing overheads and pushing to remote working is a tempting proposition. 

For many, flexibility will be important in the short and longer term – enabling this wherever possible will protect and improve mental health. 

Consider how hybrid working will change your workplace culture

Now is the time to consider how the built environment and your culture working could better promote wellbeing – especially if being in the office is less frequent, and higher value for both business and employee. 

With many employers looking at a hybrid model of part office/part home consider how this dynamic will affect culture, and productivity. 

It is tempting to ask everyone to be present for team meetings so that all are ‘in the room’ – at the same time that might create barriers for people who are anxious about travel or have other access needs. 

You could also consider asking all staff who are in a meeting to be on phones or video if some participants are at home – especially if your office lacks the technology and space to create inclusive hybrid meetings. 

Plan for a gradual return to work for those who have been furloughed

If your staff have been on furlough, think about their return to work in the same way you would a person returning from sick leave, a sabbatical or parental leave.  

Advance notice, a return-to-work plan, or a phased return are all options.  Remember that being on furlough may have been a challenge to mental health, and that people’s priorities might have shifted during this time. Building in time for career conversations and wellbeing check-ins can be useful. 

Equip line managers with the skills to have conversations about mental health

For any business, the relationship between manager and employee is key to success. Ove the last decade we have seen a huge increase in manager training on mental health, and better still holistic mental health programmes that include training. 

If you have trained managers, it is a good time to refresh their skills, and especially emphasise the value of listening and questioning skills, and the confidence to ask, and offer appropriate signposting. 

Our Coronavirus Mental Health Hub has a range of articles with tips and advice on different aspects of mental health, including on coming out of lockdown.  

If you don’t have a mental health programme it is a good time to develop one. 

Our close colleagues at Mental Health at Work have adapted their business focused training and organisational development programmes for online delivery, as well as developing unique content to equip managers to adapt to the realities of remote leadership.