Photo Karen Mitchel 2020.jpg

Renewed respect for workers should extend to their return to work

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week (10-16 May). As employers prepare for the return of their staff after lockdown, this summer, IOSH Researcher Karen Michell urges them to consider the whole psychosocial experience that comes with this.

Let’s face it, Covid-19 has been a massive shock to our lives. No corner of the earth, it seems, has been left untouched by it. Bringing death, illness and all the disruption of lockdown and its economic devastation, hardship and damage to people’s mental health, the full impact of the pandemic has been on a nightmarish scale.

Yet our response to this tragedy has thrown up some positive moments of experience and insight, at least some of which will hopefully stay with us as we move forward. One example, I’d suggest, is how our support for a battling NHS extended to a renewed respect for all our frontline workers, whether they be in social care settings, supermarkets or emptying our bins, to give just a few examples.

Working in occupational safety and health, I’d like to think this feeling will continue to be good and will extend to all workers, whatever their contribution to the economy and to society.

There’s been much debate around how lockdown has changed our way of working and where we work. The enforced and rapid move to working from home for so many has given us a taste for more of this flexibility but also a sense of reconnecting with all the benefits that can come with the office commute. While we’ve embraced the opportunity to stay closer to our home comforts and our families, we’ve also felt cut off from human contact with others, missing that close-up interaction and creativity found in the office ‘buzz’.

But while smart working and greater flexibility are undoubtedly here to stay, many workers won’t be looking forward to going back into a shared place of work; indeed, some will be anxious about it. Some of this anxiety will come from their fear of catching the virus but not all of it. Many will be struggling with the mental side of returning to the workplace after a long time away, whether their absence was dictated by an enforced new way of working, by furlough or redundancy.

To follow up its recent survey that revealed almost all of the UK’s 50 biggest employers were not planning to bring their staff back into the office full-time this summer, the BBC spoke to an office worker from the property sector. He wasn’t looking forward to going back and highlighted some of the downsides from a psychosocial perspective.

My office is modern and seemingly comfortable. But the culture can be difficult and the false familiarity is suffocating. It’s a petri dish of anxiety and breeding ground of mental health issues.”

Many others facing the prospect of a return to the workplace will have lost loved ones in the pandemic, they may be wary of how safe they’ll be when commuting on public transport as well as in the workspace, or they might find the whole degree of change and the current situation overwhelming.

After the year or more we’ve been through, surely employers will understand and empathise with this anxiety, be mindful to respect the contributions and individual experiences of all their workers and do as much as they can to make the transition back to work as comfortable as possible, whether it be a full-time return or some kind of hybrid, or phased version.

But it’s important to remember that good work is good for health and all workers, whether they’re anxious about returning or not, will benefit from a compassionate easing back into a going-into-the-workspace routine. This will mean supporting line managers to talk to members of their team individually to learn more about their particular needs in returning to work. There needs to be a premium put on listening to staff, consulting individuals about what they might need and involving them in decisions on getting back into the workplace.

Line managers may need some mental health first aid training and maybe some help in knowing when to bring in professional help, whether it be counselling, for example, or possible support on financial or relationship issues.

The key to a lot of this, of course, is communication, talking to workers about how Covid has affected them and being ready to listen to and take on board many different narratives and varied reasons to lend support.

With regard to the virus, most workers will want reassurance that the workplace has been made Covid-secure, covering issues around social distancing, hand sanitising, ventilation, frequent hygiene, screens, lateral flow testing and so on. It will help put their mind at ease, as well as keep them physically safe.

So, employers need to be open, transparent, understanding and flexible. They should consult, listen, plan, collaborate and communicate. Get all that right, respect their workers and I believe their workers will repay them many times over

  • Covid-19
  • NHS / Healthcare
  • Opinion