Managing a return to work after covid-19 and mental health
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Managing a return to work after Lockdown


Now that we are seeing lockdown measures being eased across the country we need to be giving serious thought to developing a structured and well thought out approach to successfully re-integrate staff back into the workplace.

As organisations begin to open buildings it might be worth giving some thought to how we will manage the transition from working at home back into working as a team.

This is an unprecedented situation where a number of staff have been off at the same time and are returning to work at the same time (or perhaps not, if you decide on a phased return as part of your risk assessments). It is not the same as people individually returning to work after illness or bereavement, where they need support and others are there for them.

If we have handled the process of working from home or Furlough with care and support it is more likely we will be able to manage the return to work successfully. Regular support and communication should ensure that people still feel part of the team.

During Lockdown a lot will have changed both in the workplace and perhaps in the individual’s home life. It is useful, therefore, to create a way to enable people to share the information on their experience and how they feel about it. This can be an informal request about how things were during lockdown or it could be a bit more structured like a short questionnaire. An example of a Return to Work questionnaire is available via our new Return to Work Toolkit. 

If individuals have a Wellness Action Plan (WAP) which they have used while working from home it may be worth exploring how that went and how it might be adapted to support them in their return to work. For information on Wellness Action Plans, check out Mind.org 

Given that this is a unique situation there is no blueprint for how we should handle it but there is no doubt that a planned approach to the process of return and integration stands a much better chance of success.  

Many people are desperate for things to return to normal even if normal wasn’t all that great! Perhaps it would be more productive to use this as an opportunity to reflect on how things are at the moment and what the ‘new normal’ might look like. 

As part of this, it may be worth agreeing a fresh set of ground rules about how we want to relate to each other.

People have had a fair bit of time to think about how things have been, so this may be a real opportunity to reflect on what is going well and we should continue with, and what hasn’t gone so well and we therefore need to improve.

There are two key aspects to the return to work process. Firstly we want to review how people have been affected by the period of working from home, and secondly we want to make sure that each person is aware of the changes in the workplace and how they will be affected.


Reviewing how the person has been affected by the period of working from home or not working at all due to shielding or Furlough.

It would be easy to regard the period as a necessary evil which we can now park and move on. It is worth considering, however, what we can learn from the process. This can either be a simple conversation or perhaps a bit more formal via a questionnaire. Either way there is a real opportunity to gather some very valuable information.

Some people will have experienced major life events such as losing a loved one, having a new addition to the family, having a significant birthday or gaining greater insight into their own way of working. Working from home also gives those involved a different way of seeing the work situation and the ability to see things from a different perspective. It may prove very valuable to reflect on their experience and share it with colleagues. Rather than lose this valuable information it may be useful to build in an opportunity to share their experience when they return to work.

For those working from home, it may also be worth exploring how the process has actually worked. Some aspects of work may have worked better than others and it may be worth considering which aspects of working from home may be worth retaining. 

The key changes in the workplace and how the person will be affected:

It is very likely that the physical set up at work will be different from what it was and we need to think about how that will affect the work flow. We also need to think about how communication and relationships will be affected by physical distancing. If for, example, more of our communication is electronic and we use Teams, Skype or Zoom as alternatives to face to face meetings, some people will be more comfortable with this than others.

Hopefully we have been communicating regularly during the lockdown and so it will be easier to summarise the key changes that have taken place and the implications. It is important, however, that we ensure that everyone gets the full picture of what has changed and what the implications are for them.

It is essential therefore that everyone is fully briefed as soon as possible prior to return and the implications are clearly explained. It is better to put a structure in place so that people can discuss and explore how they feel about the new way of working. This gives them a chance to consider their role and to contribute to the way things develop. 

One of our key tasks is to build / rebuild relationships whilst maintaining physical distancing. Given that building relationships generally involves a fair bit of social interaction this is no easy task. If the office / shop/factory floor layout has been designed to ensure that people are always physically distanced from each other, then the usual chats in the kitchen or at the water cooler are no longer possible. We also read people from facial expressions and wearing face coverings/masks makes it harder to see the social and emotional queues. 

We need to create space / opportunity for people to talk / communicate so that the social relationships are built / rebuilt. This includes the daily communications about non work-related issues such as last nights’ telly or the latest gossip on a particular celebrity can be discussed.

Don’t underestimate the impact of custom and practice and its effect on any changes you put in place. If person A used to sit opposite person B and that has changed, we shouldn’t assume that everything will be fine, advance discussions and explanations to support the rationale of required changes are key for acceptance. 

It is also well worth considering the fact that having worked at home or being furloughed for a significant period, many individuals will have developed a routine and it will be difficult to adapt to a new structure or premises layout. This process shouldn’t be rushed and we need to be mindful that change is always a challenge for people especially in relation to people and processes.

Another factor that we need to consider is the extent to which people may be fearful of coming back to workplaces is the prospect of increased contact with others, and of course whilst travelling to and from work. Transport Scotland have produced guidance on travelling safely.


It is important, therefore, that we build in time / opportunity for discussion and an opportunity to get feedback on how people feel about the return to work and for us to share our thoughts on the issues involved. One to one conversations in confidence are as, or even more, important than they have ever been. It is essential, therefore, that we find a way of having these conversations at some point in the day.

It may be that the one to one conversation now has to be a walk around the block where we can walk side by side, but physically distanced, talk at a normal level without fear of being overheard or find a space in the workplace that is big enough to maintain physical distancing or wear face coverings/masks but all the while being mindful of the time in an enclosed space.

The way in which we initiate conversations may also need to change. If it is difficult to initiate a conversation verbally because of physical distancing, we may need to text, phone or email the person to organise a chat. This may seem a bit over the top but in the short term may be necessary.  

If we suspect a colleague is struggling, the three stage approach overleaf is a useful way of broaching the subject. 


Using the Three Stage Approach in relation to return to work

During the early stages of return to work the three stage approach is particularly beneficial. Don’t underestimate the effects of the lockdown and the challenges of people returning to a workplace that has changed both physically and structurally.

Communication is key especially if technology has replaced some of the face to face interactions that used to be in place. Equally we need to be aware of the effect of physical distancing on communication and relationships.

Some of the key things to look out for are changes in a person’s behaviour, poor responses, tiredness, difficulty relating to others, irritability or inability to concentrate.

As a manager you may have already developed many of the skills required to support people in distressing situations but it is about recognising your limitations, if you feel you don’t have the skill set or are struggling yourself then you should seek additional support and direct the individual to this.  There are three stages to having a meaningful conversation about mental health, this  approach is a useful guide to how this may be approached:


Stage One: Observe what is happening and gather information

Regular observation and conversations with a team member / colleague are ways in which we might find out about any problems the person might be having.

Being more vigilant and seeing how the person acts with us and others will give us information about how they are. Their general appearance will also give us an indication as to their wellbeing. What they say and how they say it is also important.

Being aware of what has happened in the person’s life during lockdown is a useful guide to whether or not they may be, suffering from, or at greater risk of developing a mental health problem. Some colleagues will very readily share issues with you but others may need a bit more help and support to feel more confident to talk about their mental health. 

As a manager you will have already built good relationships with your team and colleagues but it may be that the period of absence has had an effect on the person and they are reluctant to open up to begin with. It is important, therefore, that we don’t make assumptions or judgements about how they are and make the effort to have an open and honest conversation with them. 

It may be more difficult to have regular conversations with the new way of working but that is all the more reason for us to be more vigilant and go out of our way to check in with individuals on a regular basis. It may need a bit more effort on our part but a simple “Good morning” or “How is it going” might be enough to start a conversation that leads to the person opening up.

Stage Two: Engage with the person and listen non-judgementally

If possible, have a discussion on a one to one basis in a setting where there is some privacy.

If you are concerned about the person then let them know and explain that you are just checking that they are ok. If they are reluctant to talk don’t force the issue but make sure they know you are willing to listen to them when they are ready.

Be clear about confidentiality and what you are prepared to keep to yourself. It is also useful to be clear that it is not a counselling session (unless, of course, you are a trained counsellor, and prepared to act in that role).  

It is often helpful to use open questions that allow the person maximum opportunity to express concerns in his or her own way. For example:

“How are you doing at the moment?”

“What can I do to help?”

If you have specific grounds for concern, such as poor concentration, it is important to talk about these at an early stage. Ask questions in an open, exploratory and non-judgemental way. For example:

“I’ve noticed that you seem quite subdued is everything OK?”

Try to listen non-judgementally even if what the person is saying is a bit unsettling or contrary to your view of the situation.

Key elements of good listening can be recalled by the acronym A.G.E meaning Acceptance, Genuineness and Empathy.

Acceptance

means valuing the person for who they are without judging them. We do not necessarily need to accept their behaviour, as clearly some behaviours are not acceptable, but we can still accept and value the person as a human being with dignity and value.

Genuineness

means simply being real, without pretence or façade. Not pretending to have answers or to be something we are not. Genuineness is happening when what the listener displays on the outside matches what’s going on inside.

Empathy

is the ability to experience another person’s world as if it were our own without ever thinking we know what it is like for them.

One of the major blockers to good listening is our overwhelming desire to give the speaker some of our brilliant advice and wisdom. ‘Here’s how I fixed it’, ‘have you thought about,’ and so on. We want to help, but oddly enough advice can be disempowering whereas listening allows the person to explore possibilities and expertise and arrive at their own conclusions. This promotes self-efficacy and self-reliance.

Avoid the temptation to try to solve the problem – concentrate on hearing what the person is saying and if in doubt check that you have heard them correctly.

Check how long they have felt like this? Is it an ongoing issue or something that has just arisen?

Is there any aspect of their medical care that it would be helpful for you to know about? (for example, side effects from medication that might impact on them). Whilst you have no right to this information, explain that it might help you to support them if you are aware of any problems.

Ask if it would it be useful to discuss their current coping strategies and how you can support them?     

Remember that we are not in a position to make a diagnosis but it is sometimes useful to share information that might encourage the person to seek professional help.

Establish what the person wants other people to be told (if anything) and by whom. It is important that this is agreed between you and the person and their confidentiality is respected.

Check if they are aware of possible sources of support such as: relationship, bereavement counselling, drugs / alcohol services, legal or financial advice?

Check if they are aware of support that the organisation may provide such as occupational health advice, counselling, employee assistance programme, health checks?

If there is a qualified Mental Health First Aider in the organisation it may be useful to mention that they might be another resource. 

Stage Three: Provide support and guidance

The way in which you support the person will depend very much on what they want and what is available by way of support.

In some cases, the fact that you have taken the time to listen to the person is a huge help in itself.

It is important in dealing with these situations that you know of, and use the support that is available to you within, and out with, the organisation. 

It is often useful for the person to develop an individual action plan to manage their situation and restore their mental health. It may be helpful if you are able to offer help in developing a plan.

In many cases it is appropriate to encourage the person to get professional help from their GP or another health professional. This might include contacting a local project, visiting a counsellor or therapist or using a telephone helpline.  

Useful helplines include: Breathing Space; Samaritans and Living Life.

It is important that you remember to look after your own mental health by not taking on responsibility for the other person’s problem and also by seeking help when necessary. 




 


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