Return to Work: Mental Health

Imagine this scenario in your workplace: There’s concern about Jill, one of the company’s top sales people. She has been a stalwart during lockdown, working very long hours and winning enough business to help keep the firm afloat during the darkest days of the pandemic. However, as staff start returning to the office Jill’s shown a real reluctance to come back in, with repeated excuses. Her emails and messages are starting to get a little erratic, sometimes coming in at strange times such as 3am, and she is getting snappy. However Jill is refusing to slow down or take even private advice. Her colleagues are getting worried that she’s isolated, suffering from stress and may be heading for a breakdown. With no Mental Health policy in place, what should you do?

Kevin Huffington, Clinical Director at Central Occupational Health says:

Jill’s situation is an all too common one right now as lockdown eases and we all try and adapt to a ‘new normal’ way of life, both at home and at work.

The first step in supporting Jill is to have what might at first seem a difficult conversation with her.

Tell Jill you have noticed changes in her and want to find a way to support and ease any factors that might be making her role harder to perform.

Gain an understanding of what work related problems she has and ask if there are things outside of work that she’s finding difficult to deal with.

Lockdown has affected us all in different ways, and sometimes when people are stressed it’s really hard for them to acknowledge that, as they may be caught up in a fear of failure or appearing ‘not good enough’.

Increased demands at home, concerns over finances, isolation, changing work patterns, and the impact of bereavement may all be affecting Jill’s state of mind.

Ask about her reluctance to return to the office, and listen to Jill’s concerns.

Recently acquired social anxiety disorder coupled with anxiety related to the fear of Covid-19 itself, are likely underlying issues.

Talk about the importance of personal wellbeing and find out if she has sought any self-help, and also has a support network she can talk to and confide in.

There are lots of online wellbeing support platforms you could point Jill towards, such as ‘Get Self Help’, and also apps and text services, such as ‘Shout’, where Jill could reach out and seek support.

Once this initial conversation has taken place, begin to address the issues raised.

Present a clear plan of what the company is doing to keep employees safe (using HSE advice) from Covid-19.

Should social anxiety be a factor, suggest a gradual return to the office on flexible hours.

A well-structured working day and key objectives should be mutually agreed, to avoid Jill working erratic hours and continually worrying about her performance.

Ensure Jill is also taking her holiday entitlement.

Good communication and feedback is also key, so Jill is clear on what’s expected, how she’s performing and how valuable she is.

Good team working and colleague relationships will also ease the return to the office and provide support on different levels.

If Jill’s problems persist, then seek more specialist help and support for her.

Consider an Occupational Health (OH) mental health assessment, where an OH mental health practitioner spends time with Jill, and develops a wellbeing management plan.

This OH intervention can be done on an ad-hoc basis with most OH providers, avoiding the company having to enter any long term agreements.

Right now, many of us returning to the workplace after lockdown are going to do so with depleted mental health. Therefore implementing good mental health policies that are based on individuals and intended to ‘support, maintain and prevent’ are key as we transition to a ‘new normal’.

For help and advice on dealing with Mental Health issues in the workplace, contact Central Occupational Health here

Kevin Huffington, Clinical Director, Central Occupational Health

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