Why Managing Mental Health Matters in a Return-to-Work Plan

As we emerge from the pandemic with promising vaccination rates, organizations are instituting return-to-work plans to get their employees back in the office. For human resource leaders, a return-to-work plan is essential to restoring aspects of company culture like collaboration and engagement. 

Some organizations have managed this workforce transition by rolling out a return-to-work plan focusing solely on the health and safety logistics of being back in the office. However, viewing a workplace return strictly from a physical logistics perspective has proven insufficient.  Organizations like Apple faced employee backlash, and early reports note the negative impact office returns have had on employee mental health. 

Of course, returning to work is not inherently bad for one’s mental health, but failing to consider employee wellness in the process can lead to oversights in any office return. As organizations like EY tout early return-to-work successes by addressing mental health issues, it’s clear that mental health is a key issue for returning employees to the workplace. 

A Mindful Return-to-Work Approach 

2020 was incredibly challenging for most working professionals—from the initial transition to months of isolation, personal challenges, and uncertainties brought on by the pandemic.  Organizations asked a lot of their employees last year, too, with a majority of professionals making a move to remote work. For over a year, companies expected their employees to remain productive during a year of uncertainty, hardship, and even grief.

Given how difficult it was to abandon routines last spring and how challenging it was for some to embrace remote work, one might assume employees are eager to return to the normalcy of the office. That is a misconception held by some company leaders who have been rigid in their approach to return-to-work plans. A return to normalcy cannot occur without addressing the impact of the pandemic from an emotional, mental, and behavioral health perspective. 

As a result, most return-to-work plans start and end with a survey of employees regarding their physical health and safety concerns. Collecting employee feedback about vaccination status, concerns about infection and exposure, social distancing, as well as mask safety are insights certainly worth capturing.  However, this only captures half of the data necessary to get a complete picture of workplace health and safety priorities. Employee wellness goes beyond COVID-19 precautions, and your survey should as well.

Surveying The Crowd - Employees’ State of Mind 

Only collecting feedback regarding the physical health of your employees does not ensure a smooth workplace return. Protecting employees’ physical safety should be tackled first when bringing employees back to the office. Once you establish health and safety protocols, you can focus on supporting employee mental health at work.

To ensure a successful return-to-work plan, employers must do two things: 

  • Assess the mental health concerns employees are facing before they return, and proactively consider what problems may emerge throughout their transition 
  • Provide resources and support for employees that address existing issues and ensure those resources are available should new concerns arise

To prepare for the workplace return, you’ll need to understand what your employees are facing currently. Gathering insights on your employee’s wellness starts with a comprehensive survey about what challenges they’re facing. Surveying employees about wellness should include specific questions to gauge their mental and behavioral health.

What has a year working from home been like for them? Have they felt isolated, stressed, or anxious? How worried are they about fatigue and healthy sleep habits? These factors will determine whether your return-to-work plan meets your employees’ needs. Of course, workplace mental health concerns differ by industry and organization. And your employees will have concerns that are unique to their circumstances throughout the pandemic.

While different factors impacted each person's experience throughout the pandemic, you can expect to see common concerns in your survey results. For example, stress and anxiety rose considerably during the pandemic, and depression and substance abuse rates also increased among the general population. 

The Return-to-Work Transition & Ongoing Support

Once you gather insights into your employees’ mental health, you'll need to determine how you'll address their concerns. Existing health and wellness benefits may not be sufficient to support a post-pandemic workforce, especially if employees haven’t utilized those benefits in the past.

Responding thoughtfully to employee concerns by introducing additional support will help cultivate buy-in from those returning to the office. However, comprehensive support should not be the only component of your plan to return to the office. 

Addressing existing concerns will ensure your return-to-work rollout will be well received. But keep in mind that new challenges will come up throughout the transition. According to EBN, returning to the workplace can impact existing behavioral health concerns; 40% of returning employees reported increased anxiety about working from the office. 

Providing as-needed resources to employees returning to the office, such as on-demand training workshops and small group coaching sessions, will address mental health needs as they emerge. In addition, providing ongoing support will signal to employees that your organization wants their office return to go smoothly. 

Gathering insights about employee wellbeing and responding with appropriate support can feel like a big undertaking. Organizations may find it overwhelming to address the mental health needs of their employees while also managing the logistics of being back in the office. To ensure the success of your workplace transition, consider providers who offer comprehensive behavioral health programming that can support your returning employees’ emotional wellbeing. 

If you want to provide employee mental health support in your return-to-work plan, our Pathways at Work program offers customized programming that proactively addresses the unique mental health issues in your workplace. Our behavioral health experts are ready to design a program that fits your organizational needs and implement ongoing mental health support and resources. Reach out here to ensure your return-to-work plan takes care of your most important asset— your people.



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