Have employers overlooked mental health as people return to the office?

The last 18 months have been difficult for everyone. As we emerge from several lockdowns to what many are hoping will be a return to normal, we must be cautious not to pretend the last 18 months never happened. Our Head of Inclusion & Diversity (South), Addison Barnett, encourages all of us to think about the impact on the mental health of employees and how we should support our workforce.

Research from the US has found that 1 in 3 people who have experienced severe COVID-19 symptoms have since developed a neurological or mental health condition. According to the Office for National Statistics, around 1 in 5 (21%) adults experienced some form of depression in early 2021; this is more than double that observed before the pandemic (10%).” CIPD.

It can be easy to get caught up in the return to the office and forget about your staff who have been on the frontline the whole time, many of whom will not be able to fully process the impact of the last year for some time. Grief, anxiety and other trauma responses can take time to surface after the event. One way to think about the last 18 months is as a collective trauma. The ‘Phases of collective trauma response’ timeline can be useful to frame your planning for a post-pandemic world:

Source: https://www.ictg.org/phases-of-disaster-response.html

We all remember the ‘heroic’ phase shortly after the pandemic hit; people leapt into action, many workplaces changed from in-person to virtual overnight and community groups organised to distribute food and support to people self-isolating. More recently we’ve been in the disillusionment phase: feeling that dip in focus, energy and clarity, especially over winter lockdown. Note that this whole process often takes 24-60 months to move through. A time of writing (August 2021) we are about halfway. If we use this timeline as a rule of thumb, fully emerging from the pandemic will not be truly possible until 2023. Of course, not everyone moves along this process at the same speed: just as with any change different people will be at different stages, and progress isn’t always linear.

Keeping mental health and wellbeing at the top of the agenda

With all this in mind, employers must keep mental health and wellbeing at the top of the agenda. The risk of not doing anything to support employees is significant. As well as the obvious human impact of stressed and anxious staff, the business risk is increased sickness, decreased productivity and a knock-on effect on staff retention rates.

What can you do to support your employees as lockdown restrictions ease and we negotiate post-lockdown life? Here are some questions to shape your thinking:

  • What tools can you use to shape inclusive line manager conversations? Using the Inclusive Employers Inclusion Passport can be a helpful framework for having supportive conversations with your staff.
  • What is your contingency plan for sickness absence? Not just from being ‘pinged’ to self-isolate, but next year and the year after, when exhausted frontline staff may start feeling the symptoms of pushing through the pandemic? What can you put in place now to give people time to rest, recuperate and care for themselves pre-emptively before they get to breaking point?
  • Do your wellbeing plans incorporate intersectionality? Covid19 hit Black and ethnic minority communities hard, as well as disabled people and those with longer term health conditions. These groups are more likely to have lost loved ones to the virus and are more likely to be in jobs where working from home was not an option. What support is in place for staff who have been hardest hit by the pandemic?
  • Have you made space for reflection and rebuilding? Could you organize reflection space for staff to have some quiet time, and ‘lessons learnt’ working groups to capture the lessons from the pandemic?
  • How can you support teams to get to know each other again? Think about opportunities to connect informally, rebuild social connections and get used to working together in the same space again.
  • And finally, if a new job applicant asked you “what did your organisation do to support its staff during the pandemic?” what answer would you give?

We have an opportunity to establish flexible, inclusive and welcoming workplaces as we emerge from lockdown. Whatever the future holds, an inclusive approach that is mindful of the mental health impact of the last year will put you in good stead to navigate the future.

Speak to your Inclusive Employers Account Manager or contact us for more support on this topic.

Members can access our many Mental Health resources in the members area of our website, including top tips, how to talk about mental health and our mental health awareness quiz.