Covid-19: How to Support Staff Returning to Work

Covid-19: How to Support Staff Returning to Work

Nuffield Health's Brendan Street shares an extensive guide detailing how to effectively communicate with and support employees returning to work as the UK eases out of lockdown

By Brendan Street

With the UK continuing to phase its lifting of Covid-19 restrictions, businesses are reviewing their remote working policies and beginning to prepare for a return to the office. During a time when individuals’ emotional wellbeing is especially fragile – with employees sharing concerns over returning to the workplace and job security – communication is crucial in helping staff feel supported as the country eases out of lockdown.

How to support the transition

The last few months have been unsettling for employees. Almost 9 million have been furloughed and those who continued working have also been disrupted, with many being thrust into the world of remote working.

Among the uncertainty, many employees are worried about the impact of the pandemic on their job security. When concerns like these are left unchallenged, they often spiral, with employees repeatedly asking themselves ‘what if?’

Employers can support staff by staying in regular contact and being honest and open about the situation. Sending weekly updates to all employees via email, reassuring them of the steps the business is taking to offset the difficult period, will help to answer some employee concerns.

Many will also worry about returning to the workplace. Spending months away from a social office environment may lead to individuals questioning their ability to reintegrate and for some, it may include fears about safety.

In fact, Nuffield Health’s latest whitepaper, exploring the effects of remote working on stress, wellbeing and productivity, shows spending more than 2.5 days a week working away from the office is associated with deterioration in co-worker relationships and job satisfaction. 

It's therefore crucial to let employees know you’re available to discuss any concerns, such as by offering the opportunity to sign-up for one-to-one video chat sessions. You can talk through the steps you’re taking to make the workplace safe and hygienic and discuss how to make the return to work less stressful.

If your company is too large for one-to-ones, virtual team video chats can be just as effective. Individuals may feel more comfortable speaking to their direct manager, so it’s important they’re best placed to offer the right support.

The role of language

The relationship between language and mental health is complex. Not only is it important that employers consider their own language when providing support to others but it's also vital to look out for language changes in employees - this could be an indicator they’re struggling to cope.

An open dialogue should not label feelings or behaviours and employers should avoid purely diagnostic terms like ‘anxiety’ and ‘depression’ when discussing mental health. Instead, try to welcome more general discussions about how the person is feeling and what they are experiencing in their life. The emphasis should be 'What has happened to you?' rather than 'What is wrong with you?' Conversations that are accessible and free of judgement are often the first step in helping employees notice signs of mental ill-health in themselves.

Individuals with mental ill-health also often display unique language traits which suggest they need support too. For example, people with depression often use ‘absolutist’ words, like ‘always’ or ‘never’, which reflect a negative black-and-white world view. They are also more likely to use negative adjectives.

Another subtle linguistic change is increased use of personal pronouns, like ‘myself’ and ‘I’. These suggest feelings of isolation or disconnect from others and may be common in those who’ve spent a period in isolation or remote working.

Language isn’t just about words though, and non-verbal cues can often reveal just as much about an individual’s emotional wellbeing.

Are they speaking slower or quieter than usual, or avoiding eye contact with colleagues? This could indicate low confidence or anxiety. If you spot these signs in colleagues, ask them for an informal chat and start by simply asking ‘how are you?’.

Having the right conversations

Conversations around emotional wellbeing are not a box-ticking exercise – it’s about identifying difficult experiences and concerns and signposting employees towards relevant support – especially as more employees start to return to their traditional workplaces.

The focus of these conversations should be listening. Those disclosing personal worries want to feel as though their concerns are being heard and understood.

Employers who take the same approach to these conversations as they do with traditional social interaction risk alienating and pushing away those who are struggling. They may be tempted to second-guess an individual’s feelings or speak about their own experiences to relate to them; however, this isn’t helpful.

The goal of the employer is simply to listen and find out as much information as possible, so they can tailor a relevant intervention. This may include asking follow-up questions like ‘how does that make you feel?’, to encourage more detail.

Otherwise, feedback should be limited to phrases like ‘It sounds like…’, and then paraphrasing what you heard, which demonstrate you are listening and onboarding what they’re telling you (and gives the opportunity for correction), rather than thinking about it from the perspective of an employer.

You may find individuals are reluctant to speak to a senior team member, for fear of being stigmatised. Consider appointing dedicated mental health champions or even inviting a psychologist into the office to host these conversations for those who feel uncomfortable.

Ongoing support

The nationwide lockdown was a unique and unexpected challenge, with the nation adapting to spending more time at home and limiting their social activity. Now, transitioning out of these habits poses its own challenges.

Common symptoms of ‘post-lockdown anxiety’ include difficulty sleeping, feeling tired and irritable, stress and nausea. Individuals who’ve adjusted to a slower pace of life may worry about disruption, like resuming their morning commute and returning to a social environment.

It’s important employers provide continued support for those struggling with their return to work. Employees who may not have worried about returning initially may find themselves overwhelmed when faced with the return to a physical space.

Providing access to employee assistance programmes (EAPs) or telephone CBT sessions gives individuals confidential access to a specialist, with whom they can chat about any concerns as they adjust to the ‘new normal’.  Such sessions can teach employees a range of coping mechanisms, like noticing negative thinking patterns and unhelpful behaviours, which can help employees manage feelings of stress and anxiety during times of change and disruption.

About the Author

Brendan Street is Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing at Nuffield HealthHe has over 25 years of experience treating mental health problems in the NHS and private sector. Brendan is a BABCP Accredited Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist and Supervisor, fully qualified EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) practitioner, and NMC registered Mental Health Nurse.