Charlotte Steventon

June 16, 2020

Posted by Network HR

HR teams must consider the mental wellbeing of the post-lockdown workforce...

For the majority of office workers, it’s been 11 weeks since governmental lockdown came into action and the nation became remote workers overnight. Since then, we’ve all had to adjust to being cooped up indoors without the ability to socialise or communicate face-to-face with colleagues and friends. But what impact has this had on the workforce’s mental health and wellbeing? And, as the R rate continues to fall, and returning to the office is being discussed, how can HR teams ensure a positive return to work for employees?


 What impact has lockdown had on employee wellbeing?

A study polled more than 2000 adults on their wellbeing working from home during lockdown. Its results show that 86 per cent feel that remote working was having a negative impact on their health.[i] More specifically, a third of workers said that they were experiencing increased anxiety, with an alike number reporting disturbed sleep. Similar findings are shown in the Mental Health Foundation survey, which polled more than 1,000 HR professionals in medium to large UK companies.[ii]  According to more than half of the HR leaders surveyed, mental health issues such as stress, burnout, isolation and loneliness had increased among their workforce since the coronavirus crisis and home working began. Moreover, three-quarters of HR managers surveyed believed the widespread implementation of home working encouraged so-called ‘e-presenteeism’ – “a culture where workers feel they should be online and available to colleagues as much as possible, even when feeling unwell or having already worked their contracted hours”.[iii] These surveys clearly suggest that home working is causing a rise in employee burnout and anxiety. However, we must not forget the wellbeing of those that aren’t working - the furloughed workers. Being unable to work has resulted in increased fears of becoming invisible, and less-valued team members. Furthermore, being out of their normal stimulating routine can lead to feelings of depression. It’s without doubt that lockdown and home working is causing a mental strain on our workforce.

How are employees feeling about returning to work?

 With the infection rate decreasing, we are all hoping that the economy will soon start improving and that office working will slowly return to normality. In doing so, this should begin to ease many mental health issues mentioned above that have developed due to working from home. However, it may surprise you that a CIPD survey of one-thousand working adults, has shown that more than two-fifths of UK workers are anxious about the prospect of returning to the workplace following the coronavirus outbreak - the main reason for this being the continuing health risk posed by COVID-19.[iv] Furthermore, the survey also revealed that “31 per cent of workers were anxious about commuting to work and this figure jumped to 52 per cent in London, where commutes are often longer.”[v] For furloughed workers, there is an added concern surrounding the uncertainty of returning to work. Will their role remain the same? Have their pre-COVID efforts been forgotten? Will they be able to snap back into their old routine? They simply don’t know what the future will hold and this can keep them up at night.


 So, how can HR professionals ensure a smooth return to office?


Regular communication is imperative to reduce workforce anxiety levels. In a climate of uncertainty, regular phone calls or virtual meetings can provide reassurance and peace of mind for both furloughed and non-furloughed employees. It ensures that all employees still feel part of a team as well as providing an opportunity to ask work-related questions and resolve queries that are causing worry. Lisa Finnegan, senior HR director at LinkedIn, has encouraged managers and colleagues to be open about their own wellbeing experiences, and to support friends and co-workers in similar positions.[vi]

Making the return to work as safe as possible:

We all know that we must wash our hands regularly and stay a safe distance, but what more can be done in the workspace to reduce fear for workers? There is the popular option of introducing a phased return into the office, which will limit the number of staff in the building and, in turn, reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Alternatively, companies could introduce flexible working hours so that staff are not travelling in rush hour. Creating company guidelines are also effective, such as temperature tests on entering the building, one-way systems, and making it an obligation for all staff to clean their workspace at the beginning and end of the day. These are only a few examples that could greatly reduce the anxiety surrounding the COVID-19 risks. HR professionals and managers alike must ensure that health and safety measures are in place and communicated clearly prior to workforces returning.

Workspace personalisation and control:

An interesting theory has been suggested by Ben Channon, Head of Wellbeing at Assael Architecture. He believes that mental wellbeing will be more important than ever in our post-lockdown world, and proposes that giving employees more control over their work environments will help them feel calm, focused, and ready for work.[vii] This is supported by the Society for Human Resource Management survey, that highlighted ‘personalisation and control’ over work environments are shown to be key drivers of positive mental health. [viii] For example, allowing employees the space to decorate their work stations with desk lamps, plants, photographs – organised in a way that suits them – can bring familiarity and a sense of control over their workplace. Therefore, companies may have to be prepared to create a more adaptable environment, informed by the current impromptu home working situation to improve productivity and staff happiness.

To summarise, everyone is keen to get back to normality and we can all agree that a routine and stimulating work is extremely beneficial for mental health. Yet, HR professionals cannot overlook the clear impact that these unprecedented times have had on the mental wellbeing of the workforce. By recognising this and planning accordingly, companies are more likely to bring back a positive and productive workforce. Do you feel that your workforce is mentally prepared to return to work?