MAKE A DIFFERENCE | workplace culture / mental health / wellbeing

Supporting Employee Mental Health In The Return To The Workplace

With Covid-19 vaccines now being distributed globally, employers have begun planning their workplace re-entry; the when, how and what it will look like.

When offices shut down seemingly overnight in March 2020, it was thought to be for a short duration. A full year on, most office workers are still remote and – in my experience – many have anxiety of returning to a workplace setting and an environment in which they can’t control whom they come into contact with.

We’ve spent the past year forced to physically distance from those closest to us and many of our shared life experiences were put on hold. During that time, we’ve experienced a collective trauma and the psychological and emotional impact will take longer to overcome.

As employers begin their workforce re-entry, it is important to remember that our new normal is anything but normal and supporting employee mental health will be an imperative aspect in bringing a workforce back together.

When developing a re-entry plan, employers should consider the following factors to help re-acclimate their employees into a workplace setting.

Meet Each Employee Where They’re At

Each of us has been on our own pandemic journey. For some, the past year may have been an opportunity to slow down, spend time with family and have a positive impact on overall well-being. For others, their journey has been vastly different. Some experienced isolation, illness or lost loved ones. Depending on geographic location, others have had more lockdowns and disruption to daily life. For employees who are also caregivers, the past year has taken an especially difficult toll on mental health and well-being.

Open And Transparent Communication

An open and transparent communication channel between organizational leaders and employees is necessary to understand where employees are at in terms of societal & workplace re-entry. Including employees in the planning process is important in creating a human-centered approach that allows employees to self-determine when they feel ready to return to the workplace.

Employees within an organization may not be not ready at the same time and it should not be considered a one-size-fits-all approach. Workplace re-entry conversations can be in the form of pulse surveys, group discussions and should include 1:1 meetings between manager and employee.

Asking what workplace re-entry model employees are most comfortable with allows employers to access their employees’ level of comfort as well as lifestyle needs that may have changed in the past year. This then enables dynamic re-entry plans to be adapted in a way that supports the employees’ mental wellbeing and work-life integration, while also the operational needs of the organization.

Workplace Safety Protocols

Employees will particularly want to know what health and safety measures have been put in place, such as office space redesign, air ventilation, vaccination requirements, behavioral and infection protocols, and how many people will be in the office when they are.

Having a communications strategy that addresses these factors on a continuous basis will be necessary to mitigate fears and assure employees that their organization is doing what it can to bring employees back safely.

Just as each organization’s needs vary, so to do the needs of employees. For those who work in locations that require public transit, employees may have a greater fear of being on a crowded train with strangers than in an office with colleagues.

Leadership can go to great lengths to create a workplace environment with little risk of Covid-19 infection, but if employees experience stress or anxiety commuting to the office, leadership should take that into consideration.

Employees may also require training on these measures, whether remotely or having employees return individually or in small groups. People managers will need to be fully informed and prepared as their teams will turn to them for answers to their questions. Leadership and people-managers should return to the office before their teams so as to best prepare to welcome them back into the workplace.

Create A Culture Of Wellbeing And DEI

One of the takeaways from the pandemic is that many employees feel safer working from home than in a workplace setting that leaves them vulnerable to harassment, discrimination or a hostile environment where they do not feel psychologically or physically safe.

Leaders should access their workplace culture and what policies they have in place to ensure a diverse, equitable, inclusive and safe working environment, and whether they need to address any issues in their organization before bringing employees back into a workplace setting.

Further to that, organizations should consider what actions they should take going forward to ensure DEI in their workplace.

For employers who will continue to utilize a hybrid or fully remote working model for segments of their workforce, it is important to ensure that all employees regardless of their location feel that they are a valued member of the organization.

For employees who joined the organization during the pandemic and might not have met their manager in-person or stepped foot into the office previously, it will be particularly important for them to feel welcomed during re-entry.

Workplace culture begins at the top. To create a culture of wellbeing, Leaders also need training and support as they bring their teams back together. It should not be solely a tick-box exercise, but part of a strategic and human-centered operating model that continues past the re-entry phase.

Just as we’re told when flying to put our oxygen masks on first before helping the person next to us, leaders cannot neglect their own mental health. Not only for their own wellbeing, but also because their behavior role models to employees.

When leaders actively practice self-care, express empathy and compassion, as well as share their own vulnerabilities and experiences, it creates a stronger bond amongst employees. It creates a safe space for employees to thrive and for those whom many need extra support to come forward rather than struggle in silence.

Training leaders and people managers in areas such as personal wellbeing, resilience, communicating strategies, emotional intelligence and the basics of mental wellness will enable them to have a greater understanding of their own well-being and how to actively support themselves and their teams. Additional training and resources should be made available to all employees on an ongoing basis.

New Ways Of Working

Now is the opportunity to create a workplace that is better than before. For those on the fence of the hybrid-working model, think of it as right-place, right-space.

Consider what activities can be done remotely or are better suited for in-person engagement such as brainstorming, training, team-building, hard conversations or milestone recognition. Employers will be hard-pressed to rationalize requiring employees to return fully to the workplace after a year in which employees have shown that many of their job tasks can be done remotely.

It will take time for workplace re-entry, most likely being a phased approach. With an open-mind as to what the possibilities are, organizations can bring their employees back together and support their mental health and wellbeing while doing so.

About the author

Susanne Lantero has over 15 years experience in Corporate Banking, with a significant amount of that time being in Human Resources. It was there that she developed and facilitated initiatives and trainings in talent management, leadership, workplace conduct, coaching, career mobility and soft skills for thousands of employees across the Americas. After experiencing stress and burnout, her focus shifted to helping others improve their lives through workplace well-being & HR consulting, health & wellness coaching, workshop facilitation, events, writings and talks centered on enhancing wellbeing, resiliency, and mental health advocacy. Susanne is based in New York.