If we haven’t already returned to work, we’re now preparing to get back to business as usual (as best we can) and thinking about the next steps after the coronavirus pandemic. It’s vital that when we return to work, everyone is as safe as possible. Employers need to ensure that they make their staff’s health their main focus as we work through the turbulent times ahead.
However, it’s not just physical health and protection from COVID-19 that employers need to address. Before many of us had heard of the term coronavirus, mental health was a huge concern for employers. Support for both mental illnesses and general mental wellbeing was something that many workplaces were trying to improve. Pre-COVID, mental health-related absence was the most common cause of long-term sick amongst the workforce. Stress, depression, and anxiety accounted for 44% of work-related ill-health and 54% of working days lost between 2018 and 2019. Mental health concerns can eventually result in high staff turnover and reduced engagement from employees overall, so it’s not surprising that mental wellbeing was something employers felt they needed to address.
Imagine the same workplace pressures and stress combined with the added impact of returning to work in the middle of a global pandemic. A recent survey has discovered that 2 in 5 employees are currently anxious about returning to work with many worried about feeling like guinea pigs if they are amongst the first to go back. While it’s in the interest of safety that employers bring back their workforce gradually and limit the potential risk, employers need to go out of their way to ensure employees understand safety procedures and that their safety is of paramount importance.
But employers must also remember that no matter how safe they can make the workplace, this global pandemic and lockdown has had an impact on many of us, no matter how strong and resilient we may appear. Evidence from previous pandemics shows that the effects on mental health are significant, and COVID-19 will be no different. Social distancing and self-isolation have left many feeling lonely; they haven’t seen loved ones and feel cut off from the world. Many (particularly those working in a public-facing role) are fearful of contracting the virus and passing it on to friends and family, those they meet on their daily commute or colleagues. Sadly, many employees are likely to have suffered bereavements and will be managing grief without the comfort of seeing and supporting family members. Others will have financial concerns; partners may have lost jobs, or your employees could even be questioning their job security.
Employers need to keep this in mind and must implement changes to their company culture to ensure workers feel supported and taken care of, or they run the risk of losing talented people. Now is the time for leaders to review their mental health approach and write a plan of action. Here are some things which should be considered:
Communicate Regularly About Support Available
Throughout the crisis, leaders in all industries should have maintained clear and constant communication with their staff to provide comfort and improve employee engagement. Now, as you prepare to return to work, communication must be stronger than ever. Make the measures you are taking to protect employees’ health known throughout your organisation but also share resources that are available to help with mental health. Whether you work in an office, from home, in retail, on a building site or any other working environment, there are plenty of free online resources that can help with mental health from Mind and other charities. Employers need to make all of this known as well as any internal care they can offer. Shout about the support available, so employees know it’s there.
Promote Open Communication
Regardless of industry or working environment, when returning to work during a pandemic, companies need to promote a culture of open communication. Employees need to know that if they have concerns or an issue, they have someone who will listen and will help where possible. Whether this is a line manager, HR professional, or even a member of the senior leadership team depends on the nature and structure of the business but what is essential is that all companies have an ongoing dialogue with employees.
Some employees may have the option to work from home, and it’s vital that they feel included in the discussion and have regular contact with their team. In times where anxiety is rife, it’s critical that concerns are heard, addressed, and employees feel supported whether they’re grieving, struggling financially or have any other concerns. Otherwise, they’ll seek employment elsewhere and find a company that takes their welfare more seriously, where they feel comfortable speaking up about their problems.
Bring your employees together with wellness activities; this will help with loneliness and reuniting the team after remote working or even furlough. Many businesses have adopted virtual yoga, quizzes and other events during the lockdown, so there’s no excuse to avoid them whether you’re in the office or back at home.
Informal conversations need to take place even in a socially distant or remote working environment; they make work enjoyable. Some good old-fashioned team bonding can provide a great distraction from the pressures of work and the worries of the outside world. After work drinks may be off the table for a while, but companies can embrace some socially distancing fun or virtual activities to raise spirits and promote wellness.
Lockdown will have reduced motivation for many employees. Those that have been furloughed or have seen significant changes to their job role may be questioning their purpose in the organisation. By offering learning opportunities, you’re not only helping your workforce to grow and develop new skills but also restoring confidence in their abilities and future. Investing in employee development will re-motivate them and give them new goals to aim for as well as help them to feel prepared for work in the new normal.
Review Objectives and Workload
Many businesses will have had to embrace change; some may have had to regrettably reduce their workforce while others may be altering their business model to work in the changing world. It’s essential that when welcoming employees back to work, or asking them to remain working remotely, you review their objectives. Plans for the business will have changed, regardless of your industry, so individual targets and goals should change alongside these.
With stress being one of the leading causes of work-related ill health, employers may also need to review workloads. This can be to facilitate change but also ensure that workers don’t feel overwhelmed and pressured. While what’s best for the business must be taken into consideration, employees that are dealing with the pressures of a pandemic and feel overworked as well, are likely to face burnout and be more susceptible to mental health issues. This could lead to a negative perception of you as an employer and high employee turnover.
It’s more vital than ever that employers promote a healthy work-life balance to ensure employees’ mental wellbeing. Reviewing workloads and objectives will help with this.
Minimise Talk About COVID-19 in the Office
At the moment whatever your situation, it’s hard to avoid talk of COVID-19. It’s all we hear on the news. As normal life feels like it’s been put on hold, it’s all anyone has to talk about.
However, when you return to your place of work, whatever that may be, it’s essential to understand that some people won’t want to talk about it. Leaders must try and make it clear to employees that COVID chat should be limited if possible. People are still very anxious; they could be grieving or have a sick relative. We do not know individual circumstances, and so must consider others. Returning to work should be a distraction. It’s a chance for people to reconnect and feel a sense of normality again even though the workplace will be far from ordinary. It will be challenging to ask people not to talk about such a life-changing time; however, minimising the COVID chat will help employees mental health across the board.
Implementing some of these changes into your company culture will help boost your employee value proposition and reputation as an employer. This pandemic has made us all realise that caring and empathy are qualities all businesses should adopt as employees are your most important asset. Make caring for your employees’ mental wellbeing a priority and they should stay with you for many years to come.
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