28 May Managing employee wellbeing after lockdown
The UK-wide lockdown caused extreme and rapid changes to the way we work, and consequently caused and intensified many mental health issues faced by those in the workforce. There has been a statistical rise in anxiety, stress and depression amongst other mental health conditions “amid growing stresses over isolation, job insecurity, relationship breakdown and bereavement, the Royal College of Psychiatrists has disclosed.”
Employees have had to adapt to a sudden change to working from home. However, this is not the mode of work from home that many have been requesting for some time. This is a work from home where 41% are working in confined and make-shift spaces, often with other family members with conflicting needs. This is a work from home, where simultaneously a quarter of adults have reported feeling lonely. This is a work from home where there is limited recreation at the end of the day.
After a largely successful campaign to “stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives” the lockdown is partially being relaxed, and select employees are tentatively being urged to return to work. Yet, there is still so much which is uncertain. Some are reluctant to return to the office whilst they feel it is unsafe. Others feel they have readjusted to working from home and have anxieties about returning to 9-5. Many are also unsure of how to interpret advice from the government on whether they should be working at home or in the office, and how they should travel to work should they need to. What’s more is that it is unlikely employees will actually return to the same environment which they left – offices will be sterile with social distance measures in place. All of these issues accumulate to cause stress and anxiety.
Whilst employers will not be able to answer all questions with finite answers (as this is a relatively impossible task right now whilst it is unknown exactly when, how, or if things will return exactly to ‘business as usual’), they can communicate their plans clearly and distinctly.
Being communicative is best practise in a time where uncertainty is a root cause of anxiety. Government advice has margin to be interpreted by employers, and therefore external information employees consume may appear conflicting and subsequently confusing, causing stress and anxiety. This is why communication is imperative at this time. Employers must correspond their plans clearly so that employees can manage and prepare for this.
As employees have been physically distanced, many have felt that meaningful communication has deteriorated. In order to reduce anxiety, it is important to ensure this communication is two-way, so that employees feel that they can express their anxieties.
This can be done by simply regularly checking in with staff members, or via anonymous feedback which can offer a platform for those who find it challenging to express mental health and wellbeing issues.
Health and Safety Measures
If it is necessary to return to physical presence in the office, companies must have health and safety measures in place. These can include practices like discontinuing hot desking, introducing extra cleaning, taking temperatures upon arrival to work, and providing face coverings. In order to ease anxiety, it is equally important to clearly communicate measures being taken to make offices spaces safe and clean. This means that if required to return to the office, employees can feel informed and confident of measures put in place to protect them.
Be Flexible, Where Possible
We know that flexible working can be beneficial for mental health, and we now know that this kind of working is possible for the vast majority of the workforce. Whilst it might be required for employees to return to work, it is possibly beneficial to allow flexible working which may help to reduce anxiety in a number of ways. It would be advantageous to allow for a transition period, in which staggered working times are used. Employers might put in place a work schedule with staggered work hours, or a percentage of days in the office, and a percentage at home.
Organisations should consider how their employees are able to travel to work, as current advice stipulates people should avoid using public transport. Alternatively, employers could permit their employees to continue to work from home if they feel unsafe; Google and Facebook have announced all of their employees will be working from home for the remainder of the calendar year.
Continue to assist employees through this uncertain period:
Many companies will have encouraged personal wellbeing, or even provided mental health support for their employees during this difficult time. These can include group initiatives, such as encouraging hobbies outside of work, to meditation, mindfulness, and talking therapy like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
Whilst no one presently has all of the answers due to the unpredictable and unprecedented nature of the current situation, employers can support mental health and wellbeing of staff, by offering structure and support and equally communicating that this support is available. This will be beneficial not only for employees but also for employers, as through this practise they will be more likely to build trust and retain talent.
Author: Mary Ord