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How can I support the mental health of my employees as they return to work?

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Employers have a legal duty of care to protect the health, safety, and welfare of their employees, which extends to their mental health.  As an employer, you should be aware that previous workplace strategies to support mental health may not be sufficient as workers return to work and adjust to the ‘new normal’ in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.  Our Employment Law team here reviews your obligations towards your employees regarding mental health and provides suggestions on how you can provide support to your employees in the coming weeks and months.

Listening to and communicating with your employees

The level of support you can give to your employees will depend on your size and resources. However, one thing every employer should do is establish open lines of communication with their employees. As employees return to work many may still be feeling anxious for their health and job security. If possible, you should keep workers informed on what is going on in the organisation and plans for the future. Maintaining an open dialogue helps build trust and reduces anxiety about the future.

As some employees have been furloughed, others may have been left to take on new roles, sometimes with minimal training, which may have led to feelings of being stressed or overwhelmed. Conversely, some employees may resent being asked to relinquish tasks they had taken over. As you readjust work loads you should keep employees involved in the process. In a smaller business this could mean discussing proposed changes as a team. Larger employers may find it useful to have a few workers sit on committees and provide input on proposed changes.

It should be clear to employees what their roles are and what is expected of them. You should anticipate that roles will need to be reviewed and rebalanced as the workplace transitions back to ‘normal.’  Employees should have a clear line of communication, such as a line manager or HR representative, if they feel that new work structures are not working.

Mental Health training

Workplace mental health training can help managers and employees understand their respective responsibilities regarding workplace mental health. Supervisors and line managers will likely be the first point of contact for employees who are experiencing work related stress. They should understand how to actively listen, and respond with sensitivity towards employees who approach them with a mental health concern. They should also receive training on employer obligations under the Equality Act and anti-discrimination legislation. Employees who have depression or another mental illness are entitled to reasonable adjustments; which adjustments are required will depend on the circumstances and the employee.

Training for employees can cover topics such as:

  • defining workplace mental health,
  • active listening,
  • coping mechanisms, and
  • peer support.

Employees can be trained on the signs that someone may be struggling with workplace stress or mental health. Training may also help to break down the stigma attached to discussions of mental health and facilitate a comfortable atmosphere where employees and managers feel comfortable talking with one another. It should be clear that workplace mental health is everyone’s responsibility.

Training should also educate employees on the resources available to them. These could include access to Occupational Health or Employment Assistance Programmes. Supervisors should be trained on how to make employee referrals to these resources.

Creating a supportive work environment

There are many ways you can foster a working environment that supports employees’ mental health. Your employees should be encouraged to take an interest in their fellow employees’ welfare. You could implement a “buddy system” where team members are paired up and check on each others’ welfare. With many employees still working from home, regular catch up calls help employees feel they are still part of the team while preventing feelings of loneliness and isolation.

You can also re-evaluate how office space is used, for example, having a designated space, away from desks and computers, where employees can take a proper break. You should encourage employees to use this space and not work through their scheduled breaks.

You should also be sensitive to the personal needs of employees and how these may have changed under Covid-19. For example, some employees may have caring commitments that affect their working patterns. In this situation, you should be flexible and consider solutions such as alternative working hours or allowing these employees to continue working from home.

Mental Health Risk Assessments

Your duty of care towards your employees is an ongoing responsibility; you should continue to re-assess your workplace for new risks and deal with them as they appear. Risk assessments should cover hazards to employees’ mental and well as their physical wellbeing and you should ensure any employees who will be working from home for an extended period of time carry out a risk assessment of their home-working space as well.

Mental health in the workplace has been an important topic for many years, and never has it been more important or more discussed than in 2020. You should continually re-assess if you are doing enough to support employee mental health and talking to your employees is the first step to discovering if there is more you could be doing. Employee feedback can be a useful resource for assessing the effectiveness of any training or resources provided. You should be flexible in your approach to workplace mental health and willing to try new strategies if the measures you have in place are ineffective. By working with your employees now as you all move forward, you have the potential to build a trusted and loyal workforce.

If you have any questions regarding mental health in the workplace from a legal or practical perspective, you can contact us on 023 8071 7717 or email employment@warnergoodman.co.uk.

ENDS

This is for information purposes only and is no substitute for, and should not be interpreted as, legal advice.  All content was correct at the time of publishing and we cannot be held responsible for any changes that may invalidate this article.