For staff who are being asked to return to the workplace now that the government mandate to work from home has been removed, this is likely to give rise to a number of concerns and anxieties, not least because coronavirus remains a serious health risk.
For some, especially those who are clinically vulnerable or living with a vulnerable person, they may have heightened anxieties about the risk of contracting coronavirus, even if they have received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. For others, they may have legitimate concerns over a number of issues, from the risks of commuting to work on public transport to the prospect of resumed social contact having spent more than a year away from the office.
The following guide for employers, line managers and HR personnel looks at the implications of mental health issues on an employee’s return to work, and what practical steps can be taken to support both the individual and collective wellbeing of the workforce.
Post-lockdown return to work mental health issues
The pandemic has been extremely unsettling for all of us, in some cases, devastating. It’s therefore completely normal for staff to feel some anxiety around going back to the workplace on a regular or even part-time basis. For employees now being asked to leave the comfort of their home-working space to return to their normal place of work, this is likely to lead to a number of concerns and anxieties over a potentially wide-range of issues, including:
- The health risks around being back in the workplace: many people have spent a long time shielding themselves and their loved ones, so spending time in close proximity to others at work may be daunting. There remains a very real risk that even those who have received both doses of the vaccine can still contract or spread coronavirus, where this risk is likely to be significantly increased by coming into contact with co-workers, customers or clients.
- The health risks associated with commuting to work on public transport: those employees required to travel to their normal place of work on either buses, trains or trams may feel exposed to a greater risk of contracting coronavirus, especially if travelling at peak times. This means that even where COVID-19 secure measures have been implemented in the workplace, an employee may still have health and safety concerns about returning to work.
- The possibility that others may not share their concerns: some employees may be keen to return to their normal place of work, eagerly anticipating the social contact that a normal working environment brings. In contrast, there may be those who feel reluctant to do so for a number of different reasons, but unable to openly voice these concerns for fear of being judged. The levels of seniority and social norms in some workplaces may make it hard for employees to express how they’re feeling, which can add to their anxieties.
- The lack of flexibility that comes with office working hours: where employees have children of school age, they may have practical concerns over any potential lack of childcare if their child presents with COVID-19 symptoms, or tests positive, and is required to self-isolate at short notice. Even though the rules around self-isolation have been dramatically reduced, a child presenting with symptoms or testing positive must still stay at home.
- The prospect of resumed social contact: having been confined to our homes for such a long period of time, many people are now experiencing some level of social anxiety. For those with pre-existing anxieties, where physical distancing may have provided short-term relief, they may now find it harder to adjust on their return to work. Further, where new recruits have been hired during lockdown, they may have never actually met their colleagues, at least face-to-face, and will naturally have anxieties over their first day in the office.
Employer duty of care
All employers are under a statutory duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of their employees. This includes the employee’s emotional and mental wellbeing. Employers are also under a duty to conduct a suitable and sufficient assessment of the mental health risks to employees at work, as with any other hazard, and take reasonable steps to control these risks.
Asking employees to return to the workplace, especially whilst COVID-19 cases remain prevalent, can give rise to a number of heightened anxieties. This then runs a significant risk of causing or contributing to work-related stress. The consequences of failing to minimise the risks of work-related stress through supporting mental health on the return to work can be far-reaching, both for the individual employee and the organisation.
The negative impact of inadequate support can include reduced employee engagement, low performance and lost productivity, increased levels of sickness absences and even the loss of valuable members of staff. In cases where employees feel forced to resign because of a failure to support their mental wellbeing, this could also lead to claims for constructive dismissal.
Where employees are refusing to return to the workplace due to COVID, there will also be a number of factors for the employer to consider to resolve the matter.
Additionally, the different outlooks and experiences of people during the pandemic may create two opposing groups of people at work — those who can’t wait to get back to work and those who remain reluctant — potentially leading to conflict, bullying and even discrimination.
Best practice steps in supporting mental health on the return to work
It’s important for employers to put in place a range of measures to help their staff transition back to the workplace. By implementing measures for supporting mental health on the return to work, this can significantly help to reduce anxiety by creating feelings of normality, confidence and control for each individual member of staff. It can also lead to increased employee engagement and a speedier return to optimum productivity.
Below we set out a number of steps that employers can take as part of any return-to-work plan to ensure that all employees feel both physically and psychologically safe:
Ensure a COVID-19 secure workplace
The importance of putting in place stricter health and safety measures at work to ensure the physical safety of staff in the context of the pandemic, and letting your workforce know what measures have been implemented, cannot be underestimated.
The latest government guidance on working safely provides advice for employers on what steps can be taken to manage and control the risks from COVID-19, setting out a range of mitigations employers should consider. There is specific guidance for various different types of work, but the priority actions for each type of workplace include:
- Complete a COVID-19 health and safety risk assessment: employers should carry out a comprehensive risk assessment around the risks relating to coronavirus, and take reasonable steps to mitigate the risks identified. This should be shared with staff.
- Provide adequate ventilation: employers should identify any poorly ventilated spaces in their premises and take steps to improve fresh air flow into these areas. They must make sure there’s a supply of fresh air to indoor spaces where there are people present.
- Clean more often: employers should clean any surfaces that people touch. They should also ask staff and customers to use hand sanitiser and to clean their hands frequently.
- Turn away people with COVID-19 symptoms: employers should ask staff or customers to self-isolate if they have any coronavirus symptoms. These individuals must also self-isolate if they’ve tested positive for COVID-19, live in a household with someone with symptoms, unless they’re exempt, or have been told to self-isolate by NHS Test and Trace.
- Enable people to check in at their venue: employers should enable people to check in to their venue by displaying an NHS QR code poster. If the employer chooses to display a QR code, they should also have a system in place to record the contact details for those who want to check in but do not have the app.
- Communicate and train: employers should keep all staff, contractors and visitors up-to-date on how they’re using and updating safety measures.
By following this guidance, employers will not only help to reduce the spread of the virus, but also reduce any health and safety anxieties over an employee’s return to the workplace.
Consider flexible or hybrid working arrangements
The current government advice on return to the workplace is that employers should be taking socially responsible decisions, doing all they can to facilitate flexible working arrangements. This will also help to allay any health, safety and other concerns employees may have.
The provision of flexible working arrangements will provide individual employees, each with their own personal preferences and concerns, with the option to work in different ways. This could include, for example, dividing the working week between home and workplace under a hybrid arrangement, working different shift patterns to avoid travelling on public transport at peak times. Staggered start and finish times for employees could also allow staff to minimise the amount of contact that they have with others at work.
However, one of the best ways to ensure a smooth transition back to work is to do this gradually, through the use of hybrid working. A hybrid working policy, where employees are allowed to work partly from home and partly from their normal place of work, at least for the time being, will gently re-expose employees to their normal working environment.
Employers should bear in mind that no one size fits all, where different employees may want different ways of working. For example, some people may not have a suitable and quiet workspace to work from home so will welcome a return to the workplace, perhaps subject to safe commuting times or minimising contact with others, whilst others may want to continue to work remotely on a part-time basis. Consulting with employees about returning to work will provide them with an opportunity to specify the ways in which flexible working can help.
Create a psychologically safe environment
By creating a psychologically safe environment in which staff can openly discuss their concerns and anxieties, without any stigma attached to mental health, will give individuals the confidence to talk about how they’re feeling and to seek help where they need it.
Acknowledging and understanding the different anxieties that staff may be experiencing will encourage people to come forward. This is essentially about prevention and early intervention, where listening, empathising and responding appropriately will help to prevent any anxieties from escalating into unmanageable work-related stress. In particular, employers should respect and be considerate of those keen to take a cautious approach. They should also be open to any suggestions the employee might make to support their mental wellbeing.
Perhaps, however, one of the most effective steps that an employer can take in supporting mental health on the return to work is by pro-actively checking on the wellbeing of staff to assess their individual concerns. Employers should not rely solely on their employees letting them know if they’re experiencing anxiety over returning to the workplace.
The employer should also carry out follow-up checks at regular intervals to ensure the ongoing welfare of their staff. This can be achieved through increased 1-to-1’s. More regular and COVID-secure team meetings can also be used to discuss how staff can collectively work together to support themselves and each other. Finally, employers should be alert to any changes in behaviour that may indicate someone is struggling.
The approach to supporting your workforce’s mental wellbeing on the post-COVID return to work will depend on many factors, and your efforts should be tailored to meet the specific needs within your organisation and any specific concerns that your workforce may have raised. Support could, for example, include the provision of mental health first aiders and mental health and wellbeing training for both staff and management, and signposting individuals to mental health services and support.
By adopting a whole organisation approach to positive mental health, with a variety of strategies to ensure sustained individual and collective wellbeing, this will not only help with the transition back to work, but also to build a strong, sustainable mental health workplace culture.
DavidsonMorris’ HR specialists work with employers on all aspects of workforce management, including developing and implementing mental health support for your staff returning to the workplace after lockdown. We also advise on employee engagement and communication and working closely with our colleagues in employment law, we provide a holistic advice service that ensures compliance with your legal duties while optimising support for your workforce.
For guidance on a specific issue, contact us.
Last updated: 17 July 2021