The psychological impact of returning to work: a guide for employers
A year on from the start of the pandemic, another health concern is becoming more and more pressing: mental health.
For employers this is the next big challenge. In a recent survey of 12,000 employees, managers, HR leaders and C-level executives across 11 countries, carried out by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence, 78% of respondents said the pandemic had negatively affected their mental health while 76% believed their company should be doing more to protect employee mental health.
There are two major components:
- In the short term, companies need to address the immediate concerns around returning to the workplace and the stresses of working from home.
- Companies need to devote more resources to developing effective corporate wellbeing policies that address the physical and mental health impacts of work on employees' long-term wellbeing.
We will address the first of these two issues here today. Look out for our guide on how to implement a corporate wellbeing programme later in the series.
How to address employees' fears about returning to work?
As the economy starts to open back up, staff, visitors and customers will be nervous about returning to the workplace. After a year of working from home, being back in an open office environment may be overwhelming. Simple and familiar guidance will be reassuring, making it clear that the company has considered the risks and managed them appropriately.
What are the fears?
In a survey carried out in January and February 2021, over 80% of people said they would still be wary of crowded tubes, lifts, etc. even after a Covid vaccine was widely available. While many companies have been working to ensure their offices are Covid-secure in order to bring staff back they have may not have considered an employee's journey to and from the office. Managers should speak to employees about their concerns and discuss options with them. The possible solutions are varied. It could mean some staff continuing to work from home for a while longer, later start times to avoid peak hours or simply better provisions for cycle parking.
Being back in close proximity with others
In the short-term this is going to be a big worry for some people. While the shadow of Covid still looms over us, going back into a busy work environment and being surround by large numbers of people may be daunting. Office layout and clear guidance is key. This is one of the simplest issues to solve by taking steps to adapt the workspace and make it Covid secure (such as separating workstations, adding screens and not using confined meeting spaces). Managers should speak to their team about any worries and explain what the business has done to reduce the risks.
Productivity and concentration in a "new" environment
After a year of working from home, being back in an open office environment will be a big change. Employees adjusted to homeworking out of necessity, but many have now found a good routine and are benefitting from the lack of distractions found in the workplace. One of the biggest complaints about open office design has always been the high noise levels and lack of privacy so now is a good time to address the problem head on. There are many effective ways to improve privacy and reduce noise in the office from acoustic wall panels and desk screens to quiet zones and meeting pods. Businesses will want to provide more spaces where employees can go to participate in virtual meetings without disturbing the rest of the office as well as dedicated areas for "do not disturb" time. Companies should also be aware that productivity levels may drop in the short term as people readjust to working back in the office again.
What can companies do?
One of the simplest ways to reduce anxiety around returning to work is to provide a clear roadmap to ensure everyone knows what to expect and what the process will look like. Businesses should share their plans as soon as they've been finalised so that staff have as much time as possible to prepare. It is also important to communicate any measures that have put in place to protect staff so that it's clear the company is putting employees first and managing risks appropriately.
Business leaders need to engage with staff at all levels of the organisation, listen to their concerns and put support systems in place. Compassion, trust and openness are the key drivers of success when it comes to mental health support. Simply asking people how they are doing can start a conversation around mental health and provide the opportunity to discuss any worries. This can be done at an individual level with managers reaching out to staff or through a company-wide survey that helps senior management better understand the areas of concern. A survey would allow anonymity, which may encourage some workers to be more open about their mental health and fears.
The possible long-term mental health impacts of the pandemic are only just becoming apparent. Many people are still struggling financially from furlough or layoffs in their family, grieving the death of loved ones, sick themselves, or struggling with remote work, social isolation and mental health issues. Even those who are currently employed may well be suffering from anxiety over long term job security. As well as ensuring communication channels are open so that employees can discuss their concerns, businesses could consider offering an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) that will provide independent and confidential advice for any worries an employee may have around their mental health, finances, employment or any other issue that may be affecting them. Businesses can also share information on where to find other helpful resources such as websites, podcasts and books that individuals can turn to for help.
Flexibility and hybrid working
The past year has taught us that working from home does not reduce productivity. In light of this, companies should offer increased flexibility to staff, putting the emphasis on quality of work rather than availability between set hours. This will allow staff to create a work-life balance that works for them, thereby reducing stress and improving job satisfaction.
In late March, PriceWaterhouseCooper announced that staff would be able to start and finish when they like post pandemic, giving employees much greater control over their work schedule. This strategy allows businesses and employees alike to benefit from the best of both worlds: the perks of working from home alongside the undisputed social benefits of being in the office. The theory being that the trust placed in employees will boost job satisfaction, company loyalty and, as a result, productivity.
However, it is essential that businesses also offer the right support for remote or hybrid working. This doesn't just mean the right equipment and a budget for a home office set up (although both are important) but clear guidelines on what is expected of employees, efficient tech solutions and employee-led decisions over workplace design and office-home balance.
A comprehensive approach
Gone are the days when companies only needed to show concern about employees from the time they arrived at work until they left at the end of the day. The pandemic has increasingly blurred the lines between work and home and one of the side effects is that companies must re-examine the way they look at their relationship with staff. Companies should take a broad view of what is classed as mental health support so that employee wellbeing programmes address all stress factors in an employee's life, whether that be juggling family commitments, financial worries, concerns over work travel or anything else.
These are some of the most immediate issues that employers should look to address as staff return to the workplace. As we continue our Return to Work series, we will look at what individuals can do to help manage stress and anxiety as well as how businesses can implement a corporate wellbeing programme.