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Addressing anxiety on employees' return to work

As the roadmap for lifting lockdown restrictions is drawn, employers are looking to how they protect the health of their employees returning to work.

We have witnessed how quickly businesses have adapted to change in the recent weeks and this must continue as we enter this new period of uncertainty.

There will be hurdles along the way but addressing the mental and occupational health needs of workers across sectors is of utmost importance.

There is bound to be heightened anxiety about returning to offices and other workplaces. The sound of a cough nearby, the sharing of communal spaces during lunch or the thought of commuting to and from work could all contribute and it’s important employers listen and are ready to respond.

The mental health implications of this cannot be underestimated. If a business has Mental Health First Aiders, they should be accessible and high profile over the coming weeks.

Businesses should also equip line managers with the skills to spot increased stress or worry. There will not be a one size fits all approach but having people on hand to offer an empathetic ear and to share their own personal worries will help returners feel supported.

The same strategy must apply to employees who are still working from home, perhaps because of medical conditions. Long-term isolation and shielding from family and friends are bound to have negative effects on people’s mental health.

Businesses must not lose sight of those they cannot see and should ensure that employees have access to video calling technology so that line managers can check in regularly.

Employers need a clear strategy in place to address the risks employees face. This should include but not be limited to: minimising contact between employees, re-designing spaces and operations to enable social distancing, providing disinfectants and proper hand-washing facilities and supplying the necessary Personal Protective Equipment.

Some businesses are exploring testing systems, but it is essential that these are only introduced when a clinically backed and reliable product is available. Employers should remain diligent by staying up to date with any developments in government guidance and strictly adhering to it.

Communication is key. Some employees will have to remain at home due to their higher risk of infection. Some staff will also remain furloughed while others aren’t. Employers should avoid a ‘them’ and ‘us’ culture in their communication as this can increase anxiety and damage morale.

When furloughed workers do return, communications from HR and leaders must reassure people of their importance to the business.

There is a challenge in determining which employees are safe to return to work. Occupational health experts can provide informed advice to businesses on evaluating when and how employees should return to work.

Employers will need to have flexible arrangements in place for different employees in order to keep them safe when travelling to and from work and when they are in the office, including allowing staggered working and different shift patterns.

Finally, people will have been affected by the pandemic in different ways, perhaps by the direct impact of sickness, the impact of financial burdens, the loss of loved ones and the juggling of work and home life.

Until the risk of infection goes away, these are all concerns that employees will continue to face when heading back into the workplace. Wellbeing strategies will need to be robust and responsive. Using regular and rapid staff surveys can inform these strategies and help address concerns in an agile way.

Employers should feel comfortable opening up discussions about physical and mental health, resilience and coping with change. This will be key to overcoming the challenges that face the workplace.

Mark Simpson is chief medical officer at Health Management and Nick Zygouris is a consultant clinical psychologist and director of mental health at MAXIMUS UK.

Further reading:

Employee mental health needs to be safeguarded

Employers boost wellbeing funding during Coronavirus pandemic

Three lessons on mental health in the workplace