Bruin HR Forum: Positive Mental Health & Returning to the Office

The Bruin HR forum is designed to provide open dialogue with HR and line managers. This session will explore how to maintain positive mental health of employees as we move towards returning to the office. This online forum will be run by Bruin & Hazel Sawyers, a mental health first aid professional who is an excellent educator and implementer with over 20 years of experience of working in the NHS and delivering training, workshops and facilitating events. Positive Mental Health & Returning to the Office.

In the opening remarks Hazel noted that for some individuals, even the topic of returning to work might cause anxiety. She highlighted that we have all missed a great deal over the last 15 months; friends, family, colleagues, and the culture we experience working together in the office. The reality is that Covid has changed all of our mental health, whether we want to believe it or not. It could be positively, negatively, directly or indirectly, but the last 15 months have changed us all.

Attendees were asked what they feel anxious about in terms of returning to work, with 67% responding that they were anxious about commuting. Overcrowded transport and an inability to social distance were raised as potential concerns, which attendees felt organisations needed to be proactive to address, giving options such as travelling outside of peak hours.

There was consensus that employers should not adopt a ‘one size fits all’ approach to returning to the office, with support for making relevant risk assessments available to employees to help ease concerns. The role of line managers is also a critical – Hazel noted that managers should be letting colleagues know that it is OK to feel stressed about returning, that these individuals are not alone in their concerns, and that there would be may others who may be having these same feelings. Many people are anxious about not only catching Covid themselves, but spreading it to their colleagues.

It is important to encourage people to prepare to return to the workplace by providing distractions from common anxieties – these need to be proactive and not as an afterthought. Hazel explained that anxiety is a ‘fight or flight’ feeling, and it can and does occur even when there is no obvious reason for why it is happening.

Learning about anxiety as a line manager is important, and specifically what may cause anxiety, not as a specialist per se, but more as a support system for someone who may need someone to talk to about what they’re experiencing. This needs to be done without judgment or adding to any stigma that surrounds mental health and anxiety.

Hazel highlighted that if a colleague has told you that they have anxiety, ask them how they can be helped. It is important not to assume that just because something has worked for another individual that it may work for everyone. It is also important to note that anxiety symptoms are different to being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, i.e. one may have anxiety from an approaching deadline which may pass after the deadline has been reached.

Attendees were also asked if they would feel comfortable attending face to face meetings, of which 76% responded that they would feel comfortable. This demonstrates how important it is to have a tailored approach to everyone’s situation, with some attendees describing their concerns about elderly family members at home.

Workplace testing was also mentioned as one of the factors which could reduce anxiety in the office – knowing that not only themselves but also their colleagues will be able to get regular tests could help reduce some stress.

Regular check ins are important, whether individuals are working at the office or at home, as we need to still be connected even if some of us are still working from home the majority of the time. Hazel noted that we all want the workplace to be somewhere that individuals can thrive, so it is in all of our best interests that frameworks are tailored to individual needs. Working from home policies need to be company-wide and consistent. If there are contractual changes, then the models need to be clear – indicating what outputs are expected, along with timings and core hours.

It was highlighted that many new joiners they may have never met their colleagues in person – there could be a lot of anxiety surrounding this as for these individuals returning to the office would be like their first day all over again. For those colleagues or who just started their career it will have been an additional challenge to ‘learn the ropes’ and build meaningful relationships during lockdown, but in particular it will have been difficult to fit into the culture and really feel a part of something when starting from home and not having met those that work at their organisation properly and in person.

Hazel concluded the session by noting that the implementation of returning to work will certainly be complicated, but different organisations need to share the policies they are putting into place and helping each other to come up with the best solutions.