Lockdowns are finishing. Industries and workplaces are beginning to open. Returning to work has been met with varying responses - often even within the same people. We've had months of avoiding contact with anyone outside our family and being confined to life within our homes. Some people are excited about the opportunities returning to work offers. Others have more mixed feelings, feeling anxiety and stress around the transition. How can companies support their employees' mental health as they come out of lockdown and back into the workplace?
Lockdown has impacted people in many different ways, not least of which has been the area of mental health. In the four weeks to 27th June, 2021 calls to lifeline increased by 19.1% from the same period in 2019. (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) As people return to work environments that have changed in many ways, it is vital that businesses and managers provide mental health support for returning workers.
"As we navigate the economic recovery from this pandemic, we must also support people's mental wellbeing along the way."
If you, as a business owner or manager, want to provide an environment that minimises stress over this transition period, you will need to understand that one size will not fit all. While some of your employees will be fired up and ready to get back to work, others will not. And for those who aren't, the reasons will vary greatly. Understanding that will help to avoid making assumptions that don't meet anyone's needs.
Examining your own feelings about returning may be a useful starting place. Did you enjoy more time with your family? Did you thrive with the flexibility you may have had? Were you stressed by the uncertainties about your job or life generally? Are you dreading peak traffic hours and being around large groups of people?
The variety in your own responses may help you to understand that others will have many different responses too. Some will be grieving. Others will have had existing mental health challenges triggered or amplified over the lockdown period. There may be fears around exposure to the virus or changes in policies and expectations within the workplace. There may be confusion or anger. Be aware but don't assume.
Communicate with employees BEFORE they come back to work. This will allow you as managers to understand how they are feeling. Talk to them about their feelings. Ask them about practical challenges they may be facing. What are their expectations or fears? Listening now may prevent a lot of stress for both parties further down the track.
Communicate clearly about what is to come. Included in factors that contribute to workplace stress are a lack of role clarity and poorly managed organisation change. (Heads Up) Many roles, policies, and processes are changing with new regulations and safety procedures. These things need to be clearly communicated in advance.
Communicate using a variety of methods. One conversation or an email is not enough. Have a clear process for informing your employees of changes and include discussions as well as written communication. If new procedures will need to be referred to often, make sure everyone knows where these will be located and how to clarify them.
Continue to communicate. Transition periods are a process and your employees' needs and responses will continue to change. By keeping communication channels open you can understand and respond to issues that you may otherwise be unaware of.
Clear and simple Health and Safety policies and procedures are a necessity for all workplaces as employees return. Covid 19 is still in our communities, and we want to minimise the potential for spread within the workplace. The bonus effect of having clear procedures and policies is that they will also begin to meet the fears some of your employees may have about returning to work. By making these procedures clear, even before employees return, stress around what to expect and whether everyone else will be just as careful can be minimised.
A sense of security and safety can also extend to people's interaction with each other. Proactively encouraging community activities and building up a sense of belonging within the workplace allows people to relax. Being very aware of the current divisions and differing opinions within the community coming into workplace environments is important too. While open discussion should never be discouraged, it is vital that bullying or hostility against different opinions is not tolerated.
Managers who communicate will hear a variety of challenges and fears from employees. Hearing is just the first step. Another factor contributing to stress is having low levels of control and poor support from managers and supervisors. Good managers are able to think outside the box and work with employees to overcome challenges and fears.
Where flexibility is available creative solutions can be found. Many businesses are staggering start times and shifts to accommodate smaller shifts and to avoid peak transport hours. Other businesses are allowing people to continue to work from home if that is possible. The key is to be open to understanding the stress factors involved and working with the employees to find solutions that minimise those factors.
Many organisations offer support and resources for businesses serious about creating a mentally healthy workplace. Traditional workplace stress factors will continue to be stress factors in the transition back to work after lockdown. They will just have more impact in the context of the increased stress in the community generally.
By investing in resources and training for both management and the whole workforce, a business shows that mental health is a priority and makes discussions around mental health normal within their workplace. If managers and peers are looking out for each other and recognising that not everyone is coping well, the work environment will become a safer one to share struggles and find support.