Returning to your workplace and your mental health

As Covid-19 related restrictions ease and the situation changes, more employers are asking their staff to return to their workplaces. You might have been on furlough, working from home full-time or part-time, or starting a new job. Any period of change can bring about worry because it represents the unknown.

Returning to the workplace can affect everyone differently. You might be looking forward to connecting with colleagues again and separating work from home. But you might also be anxious about it for a variety of reasons. Everyone’s thoughts about returning to work are different.

People might be anxious about things like:

  • Catching or transmitting Covid-19
  • Travelling on public transport
  • Safety measures in the workplace
  • The lifestyle transition from home working to going back to the workplace
  • What work will be like now and what changes there will be
  • A less flexible approach to work and their work/life balance

If you’re apprehensive about returning to your workplace, it’s understandable and you’re not alone. But there are things that you can do to help yourself.

If you’re a manager, you might be wondering what you can do to support employees who are returning to the workplace. You might be anxious about getting things right and want to plan to support them. Good employee wellbeing can help to enhance performance. We’ve provided tips below to help you support employees who are returning to the workplace.

Uncertainty and change can often lead to anxiety. But how we react to it is key. With the right planning and approach, change can be an exciting time and an opportunity to improve things. We hope our information below is a good starting point for you.

I’m anxious about returning to my workplace. What can I do?

If you’re concerned about returning to your workplace you can think about doing the following things.

Talk to your manager

You can discuss your worries with your manager and ask them questions if you’re unsure about anything. It might help you to write down questions or points you want to discuss, in advance.

Think about what things your manager could agree to that might make a difference for you. You could ask them about things like flexibility in continuing some home working. Or what support and training there might be to help you readjust to the workplace.

Talk to your colleagues or other people who support you

Colleagues might have similar anxieties to you and sharing them with each other can help. You can ask what they’re doing to plan their return to work and ease their worries. Besides your manager, is there someone else in your organisation you can talk to? Or a trusted relative or friend? Talking about what’s on your mind can be a big help and might relieve some of your concerns.

Ask what Covid-19 safety arrangements are in place

Employers must make sure workplaces are Covid secure. There are different regulations for different industries, and you can read them here. Do speak to your employers to ask what safety measures are in place – this might help put your mind at rest. If you have a physical or mental health condition that you need extra safety measures for, tell your employer what you need and why you need it.

After speaking to your employers, if you still have concerns about the safety of your workplace you can speak to your union. Or you can call the ACAS helpline for free expert advice.

Ask for reasonable adjustments

You might have a disability which means that your employer has a legal obligation to reasonably adjust your role or their policies and procedures. This is to make it easier for you to do your job, considering how your disability affects you. Your disability might be a physical or mental health condition.

If your condition is long term and has a substantial effect on your ability to carry out day-to-day activities, it’s likely to qualify as a disability. But even if you don’t have a disability, employers can still consider making reasonable adjustments for you if you have a health condition or are anxious or stressed.

Reasonable adjustments are personal to you, as everyone has different needs. But some adjustments that can apply to mental health conditions are:

  • Continuing with home working full or part-time
  • Changing your working environment – maybe arranging a quiet place for you
  • Working hours that allow you to travel outside of busy periods
  • Making sure you have time to go to health-related appointments
  • Extra training and support
  • More frequent 1-1s or supervisions with your manager

Research the Covid risk where you live or work

You can research the Covid risk where you live or work – put your postcode into the government website’s tool or the BBC’s tool to find out figures on current infection rates in your area.

If you’re concerned about the infection rates, you can speak to your employer. Especially if you have a health condition that makes you more vulnerable to Covid-19.

Use tools to manage anxiety

You can do things to manage your anxiety and stress levels, including:

  • Practising mindfulness can improve your mental health by paying more attention to the present moment. You can find out more about mindfulness from, Embrace Mindfulness and Frantic World.
  • Keeping physically active can help to reduce stress and other negative feelings. It can increase the levels of serotonin and endorphins which are your body’s natural ‘happy’ chemicals. Click here for more information.
  • Breathing techniques can help to slow your breathing, which can calm your thoughts and relieve anxiety. You can learn more breathing techniques by clicking here.

Help create a supportive environment

Your colleagues might be feeling nervous about returning to the workplace too, so it can help to talk and support each other. Listening to their concerns and showing empathy can create an environment of mutual support.

You can check in with colleagues to ask how they are and share how you’re feeling, if you’re comfortable.

How can I support the staff I manage to return to the workplace?

You can support staff returning to the workplace by doing the following things.

Communicate clearly with staff about safe working

Your organisation should ensure that the workplace is Covid safe before employees return. There are different regulations for different industries, and you can read them here.

Prior to employees return to the workplace, let them know what safety measures are in place and what they need to do. Encourage them to ask questions if they’re unsure about anything and signpost them to relevant contacts who can support them further.

Knowing what safety measures are in place before returning can help a lot to make employees feel confident and at ease with re-entering the workplace.

Ask employees what their worries and needs are

Everyone’s situation is different, so it’s good to find out how you can help with individual needs and worries. Employees have their own specific challenges such as travel, health issues, childcare and other caring responsibilities.

Encourage them to be open with you about their concerns and say you value this and it helps you to help them. Try to keep an open mind and not to jump to conclusions. Be attentive and give the employee the space to tell you what’s important to them.

Try to recognise if someone seems to be reluctant to open up to you. Think about who else they can talk to – another manager, other employees, HR or your Employee Assistance Programme, if you have one.

Asking staff how they are often is a good idea in the early days of returning to the workplace. And think about offering more regular 1-1s if someone needs them.

Offer Wellbeing Plans and stress risk assessments

A Wellbeing Plan is a tool to help you keep well in the workplace. They can help with:

  • Identifying warning signs that your employee is becoming stressed or their wellbeing isn’t good. These might be things like pacing, biting nails or becoming withdrawn.
  • Learning what things your employee does to improve their wellbeing and what you can do if their wellbeing is affected.
  • Finding out what support they need, especially if their wellbeing takes a dip.

Click here to see an example of a Wellbeing Plan. You could develop your own plan that is specific to your work.

You can ask your employees if they want to make a Wellbeing Plan, or if they have one already if they want to update it. They can keep it private or share it with you.

A stress risk assessment looks at what could cause staff to experience work-related stress. It helps you and your employee to identify if there are things that can be done to reduce stress.

Again, you can offer staff new stress risk assessments to take account of changes in circumstances. Read more about stress risk assessments here.

Offer reasonable adjustments

You can read more about reasonable adjustments above.

Reasonable adjustments can help to make staff with health conditions more productive, improve their wellbeing and help them stay in work. In addition to the above, other examples of reasonable adjustments for people with mental health conditions are:

  • More help with managing workload
  • Debriefing sessions after difficult experiences at work, like a customer complaint
  • A mentor or buddy system
  • A safe space where an employee can have time out
  • To allow home working when needed or a phased return to the workplace, with part home working

Adopt the same strategies you use with new employees

You can thinkif I had a brand-new employee what would I do?’ You will probably have processes for inducting a new employee to make them feel comfortable and to induct them in the workplace. Consider if some of these things would be useful for staff returning to the workplace.

What you can do if an employee is struggling with their mental health

If an employee is having mental health problems some additional options are:

  • They can speak to your Employee Assistance Programme, if you have one
  • You can suggest they speak to their GP, who can offer medication and talking therapy choices, and other support
  • In England they can self-refer to their local NHS talking therapy service here
  • They can see your mental health first aiders, if you have them
  • You can refer them to an occupational therapist. You can find out more about occupational therapy here and search for local occupational therapists
  • If they’re having a mental health crisis and need urgent support, they can call:
  • You can signpost them to mental health charities, such as: