Peter Lewis

Management Consultant, Mental Health First Aid Instructor

  • Leadership Training
  • People Management
  • Mental Health

22 Jun, 2020

Protecting Employee Mental Health As We Return To The Office

The Great Return is looming: that time when all those workers who have been diligently staying at home are summoned back into their workplaces, to offices large and small all over the country, many of them nervous about what this means for the safety of themselves and their families in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The UK Government has begun to ease lockdown restrictions, and while offices are not yet in the clear, those who are based in them are planning how they can get their workers back in safely.

This naturally has many workers stressed and anxious. They’ve just gotten used to the upheaval of being furloughed, being sent home to work from kitchen tables while home-schooling children, being stuck in tiny flats unable to leave. Now we’re expecting another big change, the second in a calendar year, on the sort of scale that normally requires huge change programmes and campaigns that are planned months in advance.

The remote working bubble is about to burst

Since the pandemic hit and social distancing started, I’ve been spending all my time at home with my family. I can get work done in my “man cave” and I can maintain that essential separation of duties between office and not-office. I love not needing to travel down to London from Yorkshire every week - I’d normally spend a few days a week away from my family - and while I don’t have much time to myself, I have really enjoyed these last few months.

But that bubble will have to burst sometime, and eventually I’ll need to venture onto the train, probably with mask and gloves on, to face the future in a post-Covid world.

For many, that thought is causing huge levels of stress and anxiety. What will that world look like? What will the office look like? Will they still expect us to hot desk, or will we be going back to the times of individual offices? Why can’t we just stay at home considering it’s been working so well and technology and work practices have adapted?

It’s these transition points that can trigger underlying or even new issues around mental health. We’ve just started to settle after the change of remote working, and now we’re being asked to go through another upheaval a mere few months later.

What can employers do to support a nervous workforce?

Poor employee mental health could be seen as the other pandemic we’re facing. In a recent CIPD survey, 37% of respondents said that stress-related work absences had increased. And when you consider that, pre-pandemic, work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 44% of work-related ill health and 54% of working days lost (HSE, 2019), that increase will likely correlate to a downward shift in productivity.

Even without the issues surrounding Covid-19 and its impact on our daily lives, employers had a duty to provide a safe space for their staff; now, that duty is essential. A recent poll by Ipsos MORI, quoted in Cover magazine, revealed that even when lockdown is eased, many Brits now feel “uncomfortable” going back to their normal lives; that same article says ONS statistics show nearly half of over-16s currently rate their anxiety as “high”, more than double the numbers since 2019.

One of the ways in which they can do this is through providing a contact point or designated person to speak to when employees are feeling overwhelmed, anxious or in need of mental health guidance. If people can talk openly about how they feel, if they have someone who can support and signpost where to go for more in-depth help, then they have more of a chance to get through the anxiety and see a light on the other side.

And one of the ways to support open and honest communication cultures is by training Mental Health First Aiders for the workplace.

Those trained in MHFA, like physical first aiders, understand the signs and symptoms that could indicate declining mental health - things like mood changes, distraction, withdrawal, irritability, and uncharacteristic performance issues. They also provide a dedicated resource for those who aren’t feeling themselves, someone they can talk to in confidence to receive support and guidance.

MHFA is not about diagnosing issues nor about providing therapy; it’s there to provide the proverbial bandage for mental ill health and ensure employees feel supported and heard. In the post-Covid world, that’s going to be increasingly important for senior leaders to take seriously.

Chaucer offers Mental Health First Aid training and awareness sessions for clients, having set up a programme within our own business. Contact for more information.

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