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Mental Health and Returning to Work after Covid-19

6 months ago by Andrea Amato

Supporting a workforce that has been ridden with drastic lifestyle changes.

The widespread shock generated by the Covid-19 pandemic transformed jobs in Malta and on a global scale. Schools shut, leaving working parents to take care of educative responsibilities at home, whilst regular office environments became a thing of the past. These days, organisations are seriously considering returning to the workplace and many are applying a hybrid model of work—where a mixture of working from home jobs and at the office will dominate the working sphere.

When considering the occupational health and safety of employees in returning to work, mental health cannot be neglected in discussions. This is because psychological wellbeing has been greatly affected during the pandemic, including anxiety relating to infection and social isolation due to lockdown measures. Other factors such as domestic changes and financial concerns are also ever-present. Some employees have lost family members to Covid-19 or contracted the illness themselves. These are only a handful of Covid-19 related factors that influence the wellbeing of workers.

On top of personal experiences, everyone has had to abide by current governmental regulations that dictate adaptations in society. But even this has been unstable, as the case load varies between countries and when regulations become looser infection rates begin to increase rapidly, leading to sudden closure once again. It is worth keeping these changes in mind when introducing a return-to-work plan, as employees may worry about sudden working changes to adapt their home routines once more. 

The Importance of Mental Health

What is mental health?

Just like we attend to our physical health, we also have mental health to care for. And how we notice our bodies change over time, so too can our mental wellbeing. The WHO describes mental health as a state of wellbeing where “every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her and his community.” Mental health conditions vary drastically in their symptoms and individual presentations, leaving the onus on organisations to support individualistic needs above general policy.

Mental health stigma is still prevalent in many jobs and in society generally. Managers need to competently understand and spread mental health awareness in their respective industries including IT and finance jobs, cultivating a workplace culture that respectfully discusses mental health. It is also important to have the available resources to support mental health where needed, for example, some organisations offer regular counselling sessions to employees. It might be intimidating for certain employees to disclose mental health concerns to their managers, leaving another important consideration for employers when wishing to foster a beneficial workplace culture.

Mental health during Covid-19

As working individuals, we spend an impressive amount of time doing our in-office or remote jobs—approximately one third of lives, in fact—making the workplace a primary hub to foster a long-term positive and supportive environment. For starters, research has consistently demonstrated that a supportive mental health climate improves job satisfaction (e.g., Nadinloyi et al., 2013). Managers shouldn’t seek to diagnose employees, but rather be aware of metal health disorders and how they can appear in the workplace, in order to provide support accordingly.

Anxiety is one of the most common mental health disorders, in the US affecting 18.1% of the population annually. One third of people with anxiety disorders suffer from depression and vice-versa. In an ongoing longitudinal study conducted by Vahratian et al. (2021), the percentage of individuals with anxiety and depressive disorders increased from 36.4% to 41.5% as a result of the pandemic. Mental health disorders are a leading cause of long-term absence from work. Research evaluating mental health trends allows for supportive interventions to be constructed and guide particularly vulnerable groups.

With the above in mind, employers need to ensure a supportive framework is in place when planning return-to-work for mental health and provide the necessary available resources where possible. This can mean counselling services, assistance programmes, and general occupational health services. Employers also need to maintain open and empathic lines of communication with employees to effectively guide them and accommodate to workplace changes where needed. At the very least, leaders should encourage workers to support a healthy lifestyle for their jobs, including work-life wellness.

Practical Recommendations for Employers

Maintaining open communication supporting mental health will demonstrate an organisational commitment to employees who feel safe to approach their leaders when concerns arise. Further recommendations include:

  • Adopt a supportive leadership style: Poor management can directly impact employee wellbeing and serve as a leading source of stress. Managers need to be trained to support positive wellbeing and become aware of how their role affects the organisation generally. Contrarily, good management can help reduce stress and prevent common mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.

  • Learn to spot early signs of mental health issues: Employers should be aware of early signs of mental health issues such as stress and know how to respond supportively. That being said, employers should not take it upon themselves to diagnose employees, as they are often unqualified to do so.

  • Provide supportive resources: Managers should be knowledgeable about the possible signposts to help support employees. For example, managers can refer employees to their GP for mental health support. The GP could then address the situation and make note of any work adjustments the employee needs for the manager to accommodate their in-office or remote jobs.

  • Awareness to available services: If organisations do provide services such as counselling to employees, employees should be made aware that these services exist and are accessible.

  • Redesign job tasks: At times, employees work on immeasurable task loads that meet unrealistic expectations. As a manager, you should consider setting realistic goals that are measurable and achievable within a certain timeframe, to avoid the stress generated from potential employee burnout.

Whilst these points serve as a starting point for organisations to guide mental health supportive initiatives, it is worth consulting with an organisational psychologist or other mental health professionals beforehand. These are warranted professionals qualified to consult and direct mental health support, keeping in mind what resources are accessible to your organisation and meeting your business needs.

In terms of final steps, the above illustrates a supportive framework that promotes positive mental wellbeing. Educating your workforce on mental health helps reduce the present stigma and get rid of common misconceptions, building a culture that values informed decision-making. Ensure employees don’t work immensely long hours (which is counterproductive) and offer flexible working arrangements for employees returning to work to help them adjust to a new routine. In understanding the risks of mental health, spreading awareness is a start, but practical implementations can support a workforce hesitant about change after the Covid-19 pandemic.