Mylo Kaye on whether returning to the office will result in mental health benefits for millions of people.

The UK is going through one of the most challenging periods in a generation. As of 12 August 2020, the country is officially in recession, with a drop in GDP of more than 20% between March and June 2020. And the pandemic is a long way from over.

Lockdown is lifting across the country, and people are finding their way to a new kind of normal. And all of this is taking its toll on the nation’s mental health. So, will heading back to the office improve people’s mental health? And with many businesses apparently reluctant to bring employees back to the office, is a distributed working model the answer?

Mental health benefits and drawbacks reported by remote workers
Remote working has become an accepted way of life for almost 50% of workers in the UK. The Office of National Statistics (ONS) shows that throughout June, the numbers of people choosing to work from home was still increasing.

And as businesses look at ways to bring staff back, stats show that many business leaders prefer to keep employees at home. The latest official figures show that 9.1 million people are currently furloughed by 1.1 million employers. The ONS says that the increase in remote working includes employees who are at home 100% of the time, and others working across a distributed working model. This mix of home working and part time office working is an increasingly popular model for companies to choose. And for some it could be permanent.

Unsurprisingly, the building sector reported the biggest number of people returning from furlough. But most went straight to sites to work rather than being confined to an office space.

Continued uncertainty around getting people back to the office
Initial hopes of a relatively quick economic recovery are dropping as uncertainty continues across the board. Everything from Foreign Office travel advice to A-level results and whether it is safe for children to go back to school in September is contributing towards the widespread rise in anxiety.

Against this backdrop of collective anxiety, employers need to make decisions about their staff. While corporations can now bring staff back into the office as long as they follow the Government guidance regarding COVID-19, many are running various forms of distributed working models. These combine in-person meetings with remote working and online conferences. It’s a model that works well with the increasing digitisation of just about every sector.

For employers, it’s important to understand what will work best for their bottom line, but also for their staff. The effects of the pandemic on the nation’s mental health has prompted me to change direction in my career and I’m now training as a counsellor. I want to be part of what I believe will be a lasting legacy from the collective trauma people have undergone and are continuing to undergo.

And when people return to work, whether that means the end of furlough or being asked to come back into the office, anxiety rises again. Some employees will be dealing with extra problems. These could revolve around childcare issues or other caring issues for family members. Others may be more concerned about the potential exposure to COVID-19, particularly if they have to commute using public transport.

Psychological impact of lockdown still affecting workers

It’s worth remembering that for a quarter of this year ‘staying safe’ meant staying at home for the majority. The inevitable increase in social connection caused by going back to the office, interacting with clients and customers and dealing with perceived risks will affect the mental health of many returning workers.

On the flipside, millions of people report struggling with isolation throughout lockdown. These people will be looking forward to going back. There are obvious advantages of face-to-face contact for mental wellbeing. Employers should review their traditional operations and consider whether changing their requirements for the future.

Companies have a duty to protect their employees’ mental health and welfare and should include mental health in their risk assessments. Appropriate measures vary from business to business and sector to sector. Businesses that continue to work with a mix of remote working and in-office working must carry out a different kind of risk assessment. Communication must be regular to ensure that home workers aren’t left feeling isolated or uncertain about their duties.

8 tips to help boost employee mental health benefits during the pandemic

  1. Be clear

Clear communication is vital particularly when explaining to employees your rationale for who must work where and when.

  • Be flexible

For employees coming back into the office, it’s vital that you listen to their concerns, issues and anxieties. This will need flexibility on both sides.

  • Keep communicating

If you haven’t yet decided the form your return to a ‘new normal’ will take, don’t leave home working employees in the dark. This leads to even more anxiety. In times of extended periods of uncertainty, communication is the best way to mitigate distress.

  • Consult with employees

Employees will give you suggestions and insights that will be useful in planning a distributed working model. It also helps to foster teamwork and that employees feel involved.

  • Consider serviced offices

Distributed working models have the benefit of total flexibility. For small and medium sized businesses, a realistic option could be to utilise serviced offices. It cuts overheads and ensures there are excellent facilities available when you need them. Alternatively, staggering people’s return to the office while others remain working from home could strike the right balance.

  • Be supportive

Employees will be concerned about different aspects of returning to work. For those bereaved during lockdown, or recovering from the virus itself, it’s likely to be more daunting. Employers must remain flexible and discuss any adjustments that need to be made.

  • Bring people together

People feel more secure and motivated when they feel valued. Lockdown has had the unintended effect for many in strengthening relationships with customers and co-workers. Video calls between people at home, interrupted by family and everyday life have fostered a sense of community in an entirely new way. Consider ways you can foster this sense of teamwork while some workers return to the office and others remain at home.

  • Provide support for mental health and wellbeing

Larger businesses may have access to free counselling through an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). If that’s not possible, take a look online. There are plenty of resources for free that relate to employees returning to the office with advice and assistance of how to minimise the effect on their mental health.

Mylo Kaye is a business strategist with a focus on sustainability and mental health. He is also a trained counsellor.