The return to the workplace - how to manage this from a mental health and wellbeing perspective

Jennifer Smith
Jennifer Smith

Published: May 16th, 2022

7 min read

Managing the return of employees back to the workplace following a period of remote working, owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, is becoming an increasingly challenging exercise for employers. Many people still remain nervous about commuting and attending work and increasing their risk of contracting coronavirus (Covid-19). If an employee is reluctant to return to the workplace, the employer should explore their reasons as to why and try to address any specific concerns they have, taking their individual circumstances into account.

Given that the 'new normal' appears to be some form of hybrid working for a lot of companies, if the objective for employers is to encourage more office-based work, this may not be well received by the workforce. There may be reluctance or push back from some employees for a whole host of reasons, particularly if they feel settled and comfortable with their current work setup at home. Employees may raise various objections and may also cite anxieties and worries with regards to returning to the office, on account of Covid-19 still being so prevalent in society.

This article provides general tips and guidance to assist employers in navigating through the 'return to the workplace' process, from a mental health and wellbeing standpoint.

  1. Communication is key

Irrespective of an employee's circumstances (whether absent from work due to sickness or due to working remotely), an employer should always keep in touch with its employees.

The use of virtual platforms (Teams, Zoom etc.) and whatsapp groups during lockdown became indispensable and transformed the method of communication. Internal communications between colleagues and management was on a frequent, if not daily basis, which maintained engagement and team spirit. Once employees were expected to return to the office, a benefit of having sustained continuous communications, was that many did not see returning as such a 'daunting' experience, since there had been a regular line of communication between staff in the absence of any face to face social interaction.

If, during the pandemic, employees were instructed to work remotely as a temporary measure, any return to the office instruction now should clearly outline the working model moving forward, while addressing and alleviating any potential issues employees may raise. Following any objections (if any), any individual agreement with an employee should be followed up in writing to avoid issues moving forward.

  1. Be proactive and provide reassurances

As outlined above, employers should be proactive in addressing any potential issues and concerns when managing a return to the work place, before they are raised. If there have been changes to the office working environment during their period of absence from the office, which would alleviate worries, then this should be conveyed to them. For instance, sharing any risk assessments to show transmission risks have been minimised or demonstrating that the site remains Covid secure, will give employees confidence in the employer.

If employees are genuinely fearful and anxious, an employer should be considerate and should spend time with the employee, exploring any ideas that they have and if these can be accomodated.

If an employer cannot satisfy the employee's anxieties, they should explore alternatives such as a slightly extended period of working from home, a phased return (as appropriate on a case-by-case basis) or allowing the employee to observe and assess the workplace in person, to build their confidence.

  1. Hold a return-to-work meeting

Although not required, it may also be appropriate to hold some form of informal meeting with employees to understand their concerns and make the transition easier and smoother.

  1. Train line managers and signposting employees

Appropriate individuals should also be trained in understanding mental health issues as part of their overall management/leadership training. If appropriate, signposting employees to any support services to manage their mental health such as an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), is also recommended.

To prevent losing talent to the "Great Resignation", companies will need to continue to work hard to build trust and loyalty with their work force. Cultures built on transparency, particularly when combined with empathy and authenticity, generate trust and loyalty. All of these ingredients will help ensure a successful return to the workplace.

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