How to support employees mental health when returning to the office

How to support employees mental health when returning to the office

As lockdown eases, there has been a lot of talk about the ‘new normal’ – but we are quite a distance from knowing how things will settle in terms of restrictions and adaptations in our lives and our work. Chris O’Sullivan, Head of Business Development and Engagement at the Mental Health Foundation shares advice and insights on how to support your employees as they return to the workplace.

We must be alert to ‘Returnism’ – the impact that resuming after lockdown will pose to our mental health. We know there will be an effect, and all employers have a duty of care to recognise and mitigate psychological hazards, and to address stress at work. This is an extraordinary situation, but those obligations till stand.

Whether we are returning to uncertain futures, returning to the workplace from home working, or returning after facing the direct consequences of the pandemic – there’s a need to anticipate and prevent distress, and huge opportunity to stride forward in the way we address mental health in our workplaces.

The following steps may help:   

Involve staff in planning for return to work

Open, authentic communication is key during any period of change or uncertainty and is even more important at the moment where people may not be working or may not have their usual support structures. If possible, involve staff in planning for return – perhaps by encouraging managers to discuss hopes/fears/wishes with direct reports, or by using established consultation processes. Ask for ideas, test them, and adopt the best ones.

Consider whether people need to be in the office – or whether they could be if they want to

For many, working at home has been a revelation, with opportunities to work around other interests and commitments and to focus in different ways. Many have reported a decrease in anxiety and better finances without a commute. Equally, others report that they miss the opportunity to put on their work identity, get out of the home and into the office and crave coming back.
As we make decisions about flexibility and future needs, it can be tempting to assume that everyone can work from home or wants to. Home working has for many been something to endure – especially where housing may not be safe or spacious enough to work effectively, or where social connections at work are important at keeping loneliness at bay. This is an important consideration when property is a major expense for businesses facing challenging economic times, where reducing overheads and pushing to emote working is a tempting proposition.

For many, flexibility will be important in the short and longer term – enabling this wherever possible will protect and improve mental health. In the short term, the necessity to shield or avoid increased risk of infection, or meet care and school commitments, may lead to people needing more flexibility.

Now is the time to consider how the built environment and your culture working could better promote wellbeing – especially if being in the office is less frequent, and higher value for both business and employee.

Be mindful of, and compassionate around individual circumstances

Across the UK, millions of people have been directly affected by the pandemic – you may have lost staff members to Covid-19, staff may have been bereaved, experienced the disease and recovered, or been affected in many other ways. It’s very important that you are able to support those people and their colleagues.

There is likely to be a period of catching-up and realisation of how challenging this has been. It may be a real opportunity to grow together as a team, but you may need to factor in a drop-in performance as this period is managed.

Look at the support you provide and promote them again – employee assistance programmes, benefits, mental health allies, and self-care opportunities can all be offered. Sharing stories – especially by senior staff - can be useful.

Place diversity and inclusion front and centre

Meaningful action on diversity and inclusion should be at the centre of plans for recovery. You may see an increase in staff disclosing protected characteristics – including mental health related disability as they realise the impact of unintended adjustments or find a workplace where more people have been open about feelings during lockdown.

The death of George Floyd and the global focus on the Black Lives Matter movement has also brought racism and its impact on mental health into sharp focus. Combined with the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on people from BAME communities it is likely that BAME staff will (rightly) expect employers to address these concerns going forward.

Make sure people are taking annual leave and recovery time

It’s important that you promote annual leave to recharge even if the instinct is not to (especially if the business faces uncertain times and people feel the need to get back to it, or overseas holidays are cancelled).

As with any period of intense and unrelieved stress, when the stress is lifted, there is sometimes an impact on physical or mental health. You may see an increase in absence, signs of burnout amongst staff. Be prepared to support people through sick leave and rehabilitation – both through absence management but also through coaching and personal development.

Equip line managers with the skills to have conversations about mental health

For any business, the relationship between manager and employee is key to success. Over the last decade we have seen a huge increase in manager training on mental health, and better still holistic mental health programmes that include training. If you have trained managers, it is a good time to refresh their skills, and especially emphasise the value of listening and questioning skills, and the confidence to ask, and offer appropriate signposting. Our Coronavirus Mental Health Hub has a range of articles with tips and advice on different aspects of mental health, including on coming out of lockdown.  

If you don’t have a mental health programme it is a good time to develop one. Our close colleagues at Mental Health at Work have adapted their business focused training and organisational development programmes for online delivery, as well as developing unique content to equip managers to adapt to the realities of remote leadership.


Since 1949, the Mental Health Foundation has been the UK’s leading charity for everyone’s mental health. With prevention at the heart of what they do, they aim to find and address the sources of mental health problems so that people and communities can thrive. 

Category: Expert Advice

Released On 13th Jul 2020

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