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Mental Health considerations for returning to work

employee mental health

Many employers are at the stage of deciding the next step(s).  Depending on the current situation of your business and your employees, this could be returning to the workplace, continuing to work from home, extending furlough, making redundancies etc.

Such decisions will have a range of considerations specific to the circumstances but there are some factors that are common to all employers.  When dealing with people it is important to consider the ‘human’ element.  As obvious as this sounds, have you built the following into your thinking?

  • The employee’s experience over the past few months (what is their specific circumstance?)
  • The employee’s physical health (have they had the virus? Are they shielding?)
  • The employee’s wider responsibilities (children, elderly relatives etc)
  • And, of course, the employee’s mental health which will be impacted by all the above.

Poor mental health is a huge concern now as people are having to deal with lots of uncertainty and many of their usual outlets and support may be unavailable.

When people experience good mental health, they feel positive and resilient and they can contribute more freely and enjoy a more fulfilling life both in and out of work.

What barriers might currently exist with regards to mental wellbeing?

One of the fundamental needs for human beings is to feel safe and although that means different things to different people, Maslow* describes the need for physical and psychological safety as ’a predictable and non-threatening environment’.

Using this definition, we can think about the current situation and understand that there are some things we can put into place to try and help people to feel safe and thus, support their mental health.

Create a predictable environment

To make the environment predictable for your employees, how can you let them know what to expect?

Communication is the obvious answer here.  Keeping your people updated regularly through a variety of media will remove the uncertainty for most.  Communication works best when it is two-way so actively encouraging people to share their ideas and ask questions will help you to better understand their perspective.

The current climate is affecting us all differently so the best way to understand people and their perspective is to have vehicles for ongoing communication.  A mix of styles and formats can work well to appeal to different preferences.  There are so many great examples of formal and informal ways of keeping in touch with people and it’s a great way to find out how they are.  Some of the great ideas out there include videos of walk-arounds of the new workplace layout and articles written by employees who have already returned to work to share their experiences with employees who are still at home.

Create a non-threatening environment

To create a non-threatening environment, what could you provide or do?

Environment could refer to the workplace or home, depending on the nature of the work.  It could also refer to a wider context of the journey to work, childcare arrangements and any other responsibilities or commitments a person must fit in around their workday.

Some examples of feeling safe could mean having the right equipment, having job security, being able to pay the mortgage, or avoiding crowded spaces.

Psychological safety is equally important as physical safety and encouraging your people to speak up is a key factor in them feeling safe.  Human beings automatically assess their environment for risk and if we perceive a threat, we stay small and quiet to protect ourselves.

What behaviours, actions and language can be seen and heard in your organisation?

Do you create a culture of safety where people, instead of being concerned, can speak freely about their ideas or concerns?

People observe the behaviours and actions around us and prioritise self-preservation above all else.  If people witness others being treated with respect when they speak up, they are more likely to contribute their own views.  Conversely if behaviours such as shouting, being hustled into a room or being laughed at are observed, people won’t speak up; they will feel scared and silenced.

When your people feel safe to speak up, they will have a sense of trust in their management and leadership and perform better as a result.  Various studies show that when people feel safe, they can then create and innovate.  A different part of our brains can be activated when we’re not focusing on our basic needs.  All organisations can benefit from their people being able to think creatively but particularly now, at a time when businesses can’t afford to sit still.

Taking some time to engage with your team to discuss any concerns and thoughts about returning to work will enable to you create a plan that is actionable and agreeable by all staff, and helping them to feel safe will allow them to bring the best of themselves to work.

If you would like to discuss how to create an effective return to work plan for your business, please do not hesitate to call me for a free initial chat on 01273 284191.

Claire Carson

*Abraham Maslow was a humanistically – orientated psychologist famous for creating the hierarchy of needs for human functioning.