Supporting employees returning to work after COVID-19 restrictions

Impact of C-19 on small businesses

Supporting employees returning to work after COVID-19 restrictions

The severe lockdown restrictions announced in March obviously had a devastating effect on many UK businesses, large and small. By virtue of their size, owners of small businesses are likely to have significant extra worries and concerns such as financial implications of closure, reduced operations or how to manage their employees remotely. 

The easing of restrictions brings new complexities to balance; such as what elements of the business can be opened and when, designing and implementing social distancing measures, how to keep the business running profitably with reduced capacity for clients as well as ensuring the health and safety of their employees.

Whilst there are many practical considerations to think about, employers need also to acknowledge the concerns and wellbeing of their employees.

Factors for employers to consider

Despite the easing of restrictions, some employees may be reluctant to go back into the workplace, particularly those located in high risk areas. They may have other health risks, live with others with vulnerabilities, or be feeling anxious about recommencing activities or going to places that they haven’t for an extended period of time during lockdown. There can also be practical problems to consider such as childcare or use of public transport.

At the same time, on one hand, concerns of job security, financial worries and loyalty to their employer can conflict with the other of health and practical concerns, and combine to have a detrimental effect on the mental wellbeing of employees.

Employers can really help their employees by encouraging open, honest discussions about their concerns, acknowledging them and working with them flexibly to find a solution to suit both parties. This may involve a gradual return, flexibility of hours or continued remote working. Often the best approach is to ask the employee what would most help them, the answer is often surprisingly simple.

By listening to employees, having a flexible approach and providing reassurance of safety measures, can be the key to alleviating fears for people returning to work.

Common signs of mental ill health

The onset of the pandemic and all it has entailed thus far, has, not surprisingly taken its toll on the mental wellbeing of many people. Whether this be anxieties about their own health or those of their families, the impact of the restrictions or financial worries, depression brought about by isolation, grief for loss of freedom, the sheer impact on the world and of course not forgetting the bereaved.

Employers need to be more aware than ever of some of the simple signs that an employee may be mentally unwell.

  • Know your people – knowing your employees individually if possible and what is normal behaviour for them can be very helpful to highlight any changes.
  • Notice unusual behaviour ‘ an employee who is unusually slow to respond, seems to have difficulty concentrating, performance deteriorates or becomes unusually aggressive
  • Notice physical symptoms ‘ these may include sweating, shaking, pale, weepy
  • Overuse of alcohol or drugs

Many employers worry about raising their concerns with an employee, but simply saying that you’ve noticed they don’t seem themselves, you’re concerned about them, and asking them if they are OK, is very helpful. The Time to Change charity suggest asking twice ‘ most people initially say they’re fine, but following up with are you sure? can often work. 

If the employee doesn’t open up, then it’s important to ensure that the employee knows that their employer cares, is there to support them should they need it and following up regularly.

How employers can help their staff

Whilst not a substitute for professional mental health support, employers have a key role to play in supporting employees who may be suffering with mental ill health. Some suggestions include:

  • Empathetic active listening ‘ taking the time to speak to employees, ask open questions and most importantly listening non-judgementally and without interruption.
  • Ask what would help them ‘ It may not always be possible to deliver but it will help to understand their situation.
  • Pick-up on verbal and non-verbal messages and signs that something may not be right
  • Being self-aware and the impact of employer communication on the employee, do they seem comfortable with the conversation, would they prefer a different method e.g. phone call
  • Summarise what has been said, supportively and non-judgementally
  • Signpost to relevant sources of help e.g. charities such as Mind or The Samaritans, or employee benefits that are available
  • Follow-up regularly and constantly reassess.

Sources of additional support 

In our experience, employees really value help from someone outside of their employer. Whilst a  first port of call is often the GP and the  NHS, unfortunately the NHS has long waiting lists for mental health therapies, and mild conditions can easily escalate without support. 

Whilst most mental health therapies are available privately without a GP referral, most individuals will not know what type of therapy is most appropriate for them, what sort of approach would most suit them and could easily make the wrong choice if they self-refer directly.

Getting help early is key to avoiding conditions escalating, the individual becoming very unwell and unable to work: a situation that no-one benefits from. Therefore, a service which is easily initiated, perhaps online or by telephone, together with the most appropriate therapy or counselling which is provided quickly gets employees on the road to recovery much sooner and avoids an unpleasant and costly deterioration for all.

Mental health issues usually build up over time, recovery can be a slow process and issues can easily re-occur. A support service which provides long-term support, especially when the employee has a one-to-one relationship with a professional, can mitigate the chances of a severe reoccurrence. 

If such support can continue, even when an employee is back at work, problems can be swiftly picked up, resulting in a much better outcome for the employee and the employer.

Many insurers make mental health support services available as a free value-add alongside group and individual insurances such as critical illness, income protection and even life insurance policies. Services are also available through other organisations such as trade unions and affinity groups but employers should be mindful that there is a vast spectrum of quality, with support ranging from a one-off call to a helpline, right through to long-term support from a dedicated mental health nurse including clinically assessed provision of structured therapy sessions.

Christine Husbands
Christine Husbands

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