Returning to work could create a mental health concern for HR

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As retailers and zoos re-open their doors this week, and the prime minister talks about plans to open restaurants and bars, there is economic optimism spreading into businesses.

From this there will be plenty of relief for workers that will see this as a step towards greater job and income security. However, for already pressured HR teams, this means the lockdown challenge will now become a return-to-work challenge – this is why wellbeing must be elevated to a boardroom discussion.

Returning to work isn’t just a matter of putting social distancing in place. For many it creates issues around the impact on mental and physical employee health.

Our research has shown that two thirds (64%) of workers say the return to work is too soon, with 57% concerned about their health. It is because of this that the opening to the public of these stores presents a delicate balance for HR teams and boardrooms across the UK.

Employees have grave concerns about catching the virus and the mental health of these employees could be harshly impacted by returning to work. Businesses are already realising that now, more than ever, the health of their employees determines their wealth as a business.

On the physical side, there are already major strides being made to protect employees with socially distanced desks, hygiene packages with hand sanitisers and masks and remote options for exercise classes.

This is of clear importance as workers are worried they will not be able social distance in their job.

The next step is to protect their mental health given many workers are anxious about the return to their previous working routine after the greater flexibility of working from home.

As employers, we have to realise the cost of not addressing mental health is a financial one too. Figures suggest that absenteeism and presenteeism are becoming more common and costing businesses millions each year. The benefits of tackling these issues are of money and morale.

In fact, 74% of HR professionals said in our research that health is directly linked to employee absence and 55% said that stress, anxiety or depression is one of the main causes of absence in the workforce.

For companies of just 150 employees this is racking up an absence cost of £118,440 a year – a cost that small businesses cannot afford at this time.

We’ve already seen that there has been a major leap forward in recognising the importance of strong mental and physical health during the last few months.

The number of people searching for ‘mental health’ on Google leaped by about 30% during the depths of lockdown in May and half (50%) of all people tell us that their mental health has suffered in the last few months, as well as 33% of people that said their physical health had suffered.

These issues are why HR teams are going to need all the support they can get from the leadership. The lockdown has been an extremely busy time for HR departments.

Delivering mental, physical and wellbeing support through programmes such as personal support, sleep classes and making time for head space and rolling this into a strategic wellbeing plan will be vital. We have to acknowledge that there is no silver bullet for better mental health. It is culture, strategy and intention from the top down.

As businesses return to greater normality – whatever that may look like – these figures tell us that wellbeing must be elevated to a strategic boardroom discussion.

Without this compassionate communication and a clear plan that is shared, the opening of shops and return to work for many could negatively impact mental health. And that could lead us into an even bigger mental health crisis than the one we just walked away from during isolation.

Dave Capper is CEO of Westfield Health

Futher reading:

Getting the best from people at Unicef

How businesses are harnessing technology during the switch to flexible working

What to expect of post-COVID workplace culture


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