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Melanie Pritchard

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Return to work: HR must prioritise mental health as lockdown eases

Return to work planning needs to address employee mental health.

The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the workplace like nothing we have witnessed before it. As employees wait to find out what their new working conditions will look like, managers and business owners are scrambling to plan for the post coronavirus working environment. While facilities managers try to put in place acceptable social distancing measures, and IT looks to enhance the business’ technological infrastructure, HR managers will also need to prepare for the impending ‘new normal’.

It is vital that HR departments and team managers recognise that some employees may be struggling with the prospect of returning to work. 

The return to work planning process will no doubt be keeping those in HR busy – the inevitable redundancy measures will need putting into place, recruitment plans will need to be re-hashed, and of course measures to ensure employee wellbeing will need to be drafted and implemented.


The Mental Health Foundation’s Mental Health Awareness Week is taking place from Monday 18 May 2020. The focus this year will be on kindness – a very apt theme considering all that has happened so far this year – especially when we consider the #BeKind social media movement after Caroline Flack’s suicide, and the obvious issues arising from the pandemic lockdown.  

I fear, however, that despite all the good intentions, there is a very real danger that whilst the physical aspect of returning to work may be respected, mental wellbeing may be overlooked.

It is vital that HR departments and team managers recognise that some employees may be struggling with the prospect of returning to work. Some will no doubt be worried about travel and the very real prospect of picking up the virus to carry back home.  Some may be anxious about getting ill themselves, while others will be carers for vulnerable individuals. Virus aside, there may be other legitimate reasons causing anxiety such as stress at home. One member of the household may need to go back to work and the other will not be able to due to childcare, adding stress to an already stressful situation for example, or perhaps the lockdown has exacerbated troubles in a relationship causing depression and anxiety in a colleague.  

Duty of care

Kindness is at the cornerstone of our individual and collective mental health at work. With the pandemic putting mental health on everyone’s agenda, the idea of kindness has never been more relevant to corporate health. This is especially important for leaders, with leadership pervading the NICE guidelines as a key influence for workplace health management and organisational wellbeing.

There are many triggers for mental illness that will no doubt be exacerbated by the lockdown and coronavirus

Now more than ever, companies have a duty of care to their employees even if they are not in the office. If anything, they need to be more aware of potential stresses in employees’ lives with employees dealing with daily anxiety around illness, bereavement, family struggles, and job security.  

As we know, stress, depression, and anxiety, costs businesses almost 70 million days off sick and UK employers £26 billion every year through lost working days, staff turnover and lower productivity according to the Centre for Mental Health. Simply put, businesses cannot afford to not care right now. While only a small percentage of employees will contract the virus, 100% of employees will be psychologically affected by it in one way or another.

Legal responsibilities

The Health and Safety at Work Act stresses the importance of looking after employee mental health while The Equality Act states that employers cannot discriminate against people, including the disabled (where mental illness can fall).  This is too often overlooked.

According to Mental Health First Aid England over 80% of managers admit to prejudice against employees struggling with their mental health and only about 20% of companies provide training to managers around the subject. It is imperative that this changes. Businesses must engage with their employees in a kind way if they want to build organisational effectiveness and comply with the law – after all, it is well known that happy employees are more productive. Even the most commercially-minded manager will recognise the benefits to the bottom line – can anyone afford not to be kind today?

Practical steps

Businesses and their HR departments must adopt open communication.  They must proactively ask employees how they are, actively listen, be attuned to changes in behaviour which may signal mental ill health, communicate transparently about changes around furlough and redundancy, make reasonable adjustments where possible, and signpost help. This is essential to strengthening relationships, developing community in the workplace and deepening organisational effectiveness. Getting this right now will help to ensure a healthy workforce and a healthy bottom line in the future.

HR and training departments should consider training managers in mental health awareness. These courses teach individuals how to ask open questions and follow up sensitively, to ask proactive questions, spot a change in behaviour, give the correct reassurance, and how to deal with someone who wants to open up and someone who doesn’t. To quote Mark Foreman, Director of Trademarks at the award-winning law firm, Osborne Clarke: “Mental health first aid courses should be compulsory for all line managers”.  

Taking a collective approach whereby open dialogue is encouraged in team meetings is another vital skill to learn, as well as how to model vulnerability and encourage coping strategies.

Spotting the difference between stress and mental illness

It is important to recognise that mental illness falls under the category of ‘disability’ in The Equality Act. This means that employers have a legal duty of care and must make reasonable adjustments to support employees who suffer from such illnesses.

Here are some key signs to look for when someone may be struggling with their mental health:

  • A noticeable shift in someone’s behaviour i.e. are they withdrawn or even more exuberant?
  • Is a colleague feeling ‘down’ more than ‘up’ for a period of about 14 days?
  • Is a colleague exhibiting any or the following behaviours: crying, withdrawal, aggression, irritability, making mistakes, difficulty decision-making, memory problems, missing deadlines, poor performance, guilt and shame, over-eating, under-eating, looking pale, complaining about management, sad body language, complaints about aches and pains, taking sick days or working too much?

These patterns of behaviour will be hard to spot when working remotely, so test your gut instinct and engage in proactive support to optimise rapport with your employees.

Adapting to the ‘new normal’

There are many triggers for mental illness that will no doubt be exacerbated by the lockdown and coronavirus. These may include illness itself, bereavement, financial and job worries, caring responsibilities, accommodation problems, alcohol and drug use, lack of sleep, gambling addiction, or relationship problems, to name but a few. If a colleague is struggling with one or two of these triggers, it may heighten stress and push them into mental illness.

We are all going to need to adapt to whatever this ‘new normal’ brings. Some people will be more fortunate than others and will find this process easier.  Others will struggle. Remember to be kind – it will help you and your organisation in the long run.

Interested in this topic? Read Leadership: how to prepare your workforce for the post-pandemic future.

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Melanie Pritchard


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