Supporting Employee Mental Health as Lockdown Restrictions Start to Ease
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As Covid-19 restrictions continue to be eased throughout the UK, employers will be starting to consider a return to the workplace. While business as usual might be the first thought that comes to mind, employers should plan any return to the workplace in a way that safeguards employee health and wellbeing.
In light of Mental Health Awareness Week (10 -17 May 2021), now is the time to start conversations with employees about mental health and to reflect on how the pandemic has affected and continues to impact employee wellbeing.
Everyone will have experienced the pandemic differently. Many employees will be feeling anxious and apprehensive about returning to the workplace for reasons including worsened pre-existing mental health conditions, returning to a changed working environment, ongoing fear of the health crisis, the psychological impact of social isolation, not feeling able to reconnect with colleagues and an overall lower level of resilience. In addition, for those employees who have worked successfully from home for over a year, expectations about how they fulfil their role may have changed, leading to potential resistance to returning to full time office working.
Against this backdrop of apprehension and uncertainty, employers will need to take practical steps appropriate to the size and nature of their business to support employees in gradually transitioning out of lockdown.
Talk, connect & involve
Communicate with employees as early as possible about returning to the workplace, when the workplace might reopen and how you envisage staff returning to work and ask for their comments or suggestions. Even if your plans are only initial proposals and subject to review, it’s important to keep in touch with staff to avoid heightened feelings of anxiety as the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown gains momentum.
Create a safe working environment
Communicate the provisions you intend to implement to maintain hygiene measures and minimise the spread of infection based on up-to-date government and public health guidance and ask staff for their views as this will help to ease fears of catching the virus or passing it on to vulnerable family members. For example, will social distancing be possible? How will you manage meetings and other interactions with clients and/or customers? Will communal areas, such as kitchen areas, be available and, if so, how often will they be cleaned?
Consider ‘cohorting’ or a phased return to the workplace
This might involve some staff returning before others, keeping certain teams working together or alternating or staggering working hours to limit numbers in the workplace at any one time. This will not only help those employees who feel overwhelmed at the thought of returning to a fully staffed workplace but will also help towards creating a safe workplace.
Communicate any changes to the workplace
Ensure employees are aware of what to expect on their return to work. This might include, for example, one-way systems, different entrances and exits, new health and safety protocols or new Covid-secure processes and procedures when dealing with clients or customers.
Inductions for new starters
Many employees will have started new roles during lockdown and may not have met colleagues in person or even visited their workplace. Although they may not technically be new to the business, it’s likely that the fear of the unknown will be a source of concern for them. Managers should provide them with additional support in getting to know the workplace and their colleagues.
Promote effective people management
It is vital that managers keep in regular contact with their staff, checking in regularly and conducting regular one-to-ones to give people the opportunity to express any concerns they may have. Discussions should be sensitive and open with a focus on health, safety and well-being and facilitating a supportive settling in period to ensure a successful return to the workplace. This is especially important for those who have been furloughed or away from the physical workplace for long periods of time and who may need longer than others to adjust. Managers should also be prepared and equipped to deal with the differing emotional responses people may experience, for example, if they have been bereaved during the lockdown period or are struggling to cope with ongoing uncertainty and change.
Provide support for employee mental wellbeing
If your business has support services such as an Employee Assistance Programme or Mental Health First Aiders, make staff aware of the services they can access and/or signpost them to external sources of support such as The Mental Health Foundation, Mind, Rethink or NHS Every Mind Matters. Some employees will have found the pandemic more difficult to cope with than others and employers should be aware of these differences and put individual support mechanisms in place where practical for those employees who are particularly fearful or nervous about returning to the workplace. This could include adjusting working patterns, allowing different break times or amending job duties as appropriate.
Consider agile working models
It’s become apparent to many office-based employers that remote working arrangements imposed upon them by the pandemic have, in fact, resulted in a marked improvement in productivity and performance with employees experiencing less commute stress, better work-life balance and fewer distractions. You may, therefore, want to consider implementing more permanent ‘hybrid’ working policies, particularly where employees have shown they can work more effectively with a more flexible approach in place. Hybrid working might involve employees splitting their time between working from home and attending the workplace, depending on their circumstances and the needs of the business. You may even find that having more permanent remote working practices leads to better employee retention as an increasing number of people are favouring businesses that support a virtual workforce. Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all hybrid working model and not everyone is ready for this lifestyle. As such, consultation with employees is vital.
Maintaining effective remote working
Where the return to work strategy is to continue with remote working, even partially, employers should ensure Display Screen Equipment (DSE) workstation assessments are undertaken and, where possible, that equipment is provided to ensure both efficient and safe home working practices. Employees should be regularly reminded about developing healthy digital wellbeing and disconnecting when they are not working. Remote working, when left unmonitored, can result in a blurring of the line between work and home life, which can lead to wellbeing concerns.
Encourage and promote the benefits of regular Covid testing at home
As a positive step forward in preventing any further transmission of the virus, encourage staff to order free rapid lateral flow tests for home testing by visiting gov.uk/order-coronavirus-rapid-lateral-flow-tests.
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