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Podcast: How to support your team's mental health when transitioning back into the workplace

by Emma Mamo, Head of Workplace Wellbeing at Mind

The global COVID-19 pandemic is set to change how and where we will operate in the next era of work, potentially for good, and as restrictions are gradually starting to be relaxed in several countries, business leaders who haven’t already, are now planning how they can safely enable their employees to return to the workplace, whilst helping to manage any anxieties they may have and ultimately maintain their wellbeing in the next era of work.

So today, we’re joined by Emma Mamo, Head of Workplace Wellbeing at the UK mental health charity Mind, who’s here to share her advice on how leaders can effectively transition their employees back into the workplace in a mentally healthy way.

Below is a recording and transcript of the podcast:

1. Please could you introduce yourself, explaining a little bit about your role?

(01:19) I’m the Head of Workplace Wellbeing at Mind, so I oversee all of our programs that work with employers and other partners around mental health in the workplace. So, how can employers keep their people well, how can they identify what might be driving poor mental health amongst their staff, and then how to support staff who are struggling with their mental health. At Mind, currently I’ve been leading our COVID-19 response in terms of the impact it’s having on UK workplaces and how employers can support their staff during this time.

2. And before we dive in, please, could you define what we mean by the term mental health?

(01:56) Well, we all have mental health, the same as we have physical health. It exists on a spectrum and we move up and down from good to poor for any number of reasons. When we talk about good mental health, this is around generally being able to think, feel, and react in the ways that you need and want to live your life. The World Health Organisation also defines it as a state of wellbeing in which you can realise your own potential, you can cope with the normal stresses of life, you can work productively and you can contribute to your community. And I think traditionally mental health hasn’t necessarily been seen as a neutral term or a neutral state, it’s been automatically connected with mental health problems. And a lot of work Mind’s been doing is to make us all realise that we have mental health and we need to do things to take care of it.

We do know that one in four of us will experience a mental health problem in any given year and that can range from common problems, such as depression and anxiety, to more rare problems like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and so on. But I think for me, it is about that spectrum, the fact that you could be experiencing poor mental health linked to a life event, so a bereavement or a relationship breakdown, you might be dealing with workplace pressures or as I said, you might have a diagnosed mental health condition that you need to manage. So it covers a whole range of experiences.

3. And of course, this has been a demanding time for many leaders as they work to help their businesses quickly adapt to the new and constantly changing environment. Many are working long hours with the expanded remits and quickly changing objectives. Are there any signs leaders should look out for which might indicate that their own mental health might have suffered as a result?

(03:34) In terms of some of the potential indicators of poor mental health that you can look out for in terms of yourself, but also other people, it’s around changes in people’s behaviour or mood or how they interact with the people around them, their colleagues, or people in their household. It might be changes in their own motivation levels and focus. Someone might be struggling to make decisions or get organised or find solutions to problems. I know if I’m feeling under a lot of pressure, I can really struggle to decide what the priorities are. I can sometimes take on more work, which is very unhelpful at that time and so on and so I can definitely experience a bit of a fuzzy head with that.

Other signs might be around feeling tired, anxious or withdrawing and potentially losing interest in the things that you previously enjoyed such as hobbies or interests that you would normally want to partake in. It can also be changes in your eating habits or an increased or loss of appetite, if you are drinking or smoking more than you would usually and also if your sleep has been impacted. So, these are some of the things that you can look out for in terms of yourself, but also in others, looking out for others when working in a digital way or remote way, might be more difficult.

4. Now, if any of our listeners recognise any of the signs you’ve just mentioned, what would you recommend they do to better prioritise, maintaining their good mental health, both during this current crisis and also in the long-term?

(05:06) First and foremost, I think it’s around establishing a routine and boundaries for the working day, as much as possible. And then thinking through that routine, how you can build into that, I’ve heard it referred to as taking care of your SHED; so sleep, hydration, exercise, and diet. So, really thinking through how you stay physically well to really help your mental health.

Some of the things that keep people well as a protective factor is around social connection, so make sure you’re scheduling catch-ups with colleagues, families, and doing stuff that keeps you well and nurtures you. So getting as much sunlight, air, and nature, as you can, obviously we’ve had restrictions on that, but these are now lifting. Find ways to relax, be creative and tap into that other side of your brain.

I would say, take care with news and information, there’s a lot coming at us at the moment, so just being mindful of the impact that it has around that. And then for me, in terms of managing my job and my mental health, while performing my job, a tool that we really advocate is a wellness action plan. It’s based on a tool that someone would develop with their health professional in managing their mental health condition, but we’ve adapted it for the workplace. And it’s a simple framework for helping you identify what keeps you well at work, so;

  • What are those healthy working habits you need to have in place?
  • What are some things that might cause you to struggle and impact on your mental health?
  • What are some early warning signs for your manager to look out for, or indeed colleagues?
  • What are some helpful steps for you to take and for your manager to take if your mental health is being impacted?

So for me, it’s just a really great tool for having a conversation with your manager, so they know how best to support you and for you also to think through what you need to do to take care of your mental health.

5. Understandably, many employees may be feeling concerned about the prospect of returning to the workplace. In fact, according to our recent survey*, 74% of respondents have reservations around this, with the main reasons being the risk of potential infection, their commute, and the disruption to their work-life balance patterns. What impact do you think these concerns are having on employee’s mental health as they contemplate returning to the workplace after months of working from home?

(07:14) I think it will be having a significant impact. I think it may be affecting people in different ways and I think it’s important for leaders to be mindful of that. We’ve all been in the same storm, but we’ve not been in the same boat and you really need to understand people’s individual circumstances.

In the broadest terms, this is not a simple reversal. When we went into lockdown, none of us really knew the scale and the impact of the outbreak, the significant loss of life. So now, coming out of lockdown and thinking about accountability for people’s personal safety is now shifting from government to employers, to your colleagues, to people around you. So, your health anxiety and concerns you might have around, transmission, infection and so on is now around how other people are acting and the choices that they’re making. So, that is a real concern for people I’m sure.

The other point is around isolation, so when we’ve been living through this social distancing, some people may have gone through an anti socialisation, and may not want to be around people for those concerns that they have whilst other people are very keen for social connections. So again, the public is really polarised on easing out of lockdown and whether it’s the right choice at this time. Another big concern is around the ongoing uncertainty, so the need to plan for potential returns to lockdown if needed. So, that’s some of the broader themes.

I think around people who’ve been working from home, as you said, around work-life balance patterns. A lot of people have enjoyed a higher level of autonomy during this time and less commuting, more time to spend with their family, do things that matter to them and so on. So, I think managing people’s concerns around that and offering flexibility around ways of working would be helpful. Equally people working from home have probably been working at quite a high pace, and in a quite intense way. So, really being mindful around the risk of burnout and fatigue and supporting people with that.

I think for people who have been furloughed, they’ve been in a bit of a holding pattern, and now this is a real transition point and it’s the; What happens next? Is my job safe? Is the organisation safe? So, being very mindful of people coming through that transition point and how you can support them and reintegrate them into a workplace, especially if they’ve been furloughed for quite some time. So, how to help them do a phased return to work, perhaps thinking about establishing a routine again, and also if they’ve been at the 80% mark and their employer hasn’t been able to top up in terms of their salary, they may be dealing with some quite significant financial issues, so supporting people with that. So, those are some specific things to be mindful of for those different groups.

6. What are the signs that leaders should look out for both now and in the future, which could indicate that a member of their team is struggling with their mental health, or perhaps is feeling particularly worried or anxious about returning to the workplace. And can these be more difficult to spot when working remotely?

(10:10) Absolutely, I mean, it’s similar to what I said around the signs you can look out for in yourself, the changes in someone’s behaviour or mood, how they interact with others, changes in their motivation levels and focus, if they’re struggling to make decisions or find solutions, if they’re appearing tired or anxious. But I think as you say, that is more difficult to spot if people are working remotely.

I have been recommending to employers and managers that they have regular check ins with their team members, daily, whatever frequency works best. But I think it’s important during this time to be having these routine conversations; “How are you doing? And is there anything I can do to support you?” so, trying to open up the conversation and make it a regular part of your interaction with someone will help.

In terms of the return to work process, employers and managers should be proactive in having conversations with people about returning to work, both in terms of enabling people to inform the organisation’s broader planning, but also having that conversation with them around their individual circumstances. What is their commute to work? Who is in their household? Is anyone at higher risk of infection and the impact that can have on them? So having those individual conversations would be helpful.

7. How can leaders facilitate supportive discussions and help their employees open up about our concerns or worries? Do you have any tips on how to do this, particularly when managing remote or hybrid teams?

(11:37) I suppose it builds on what I just said around creating the space for people to raise concerns. So, at an organisational and team level, thinking about the mechanisms that people have available to them to inform the organisational planning around this, and giving people a voice in this is really key. And then as I said, at an individual level, exploring all the aspects of the return to work for that person.

In terms of how you encourage people to be open, I think it’s about probably leaders being open and honest and authentic and maybe a bit vulnerable in saying this is a challenging time for all of us, we need to be making the best decisions we can with the information that we have now, we want your input on that, we will be regularly reviewing what’s working, and these are the mechanisms that will be available to you to share how things are working for you.

So, I think it’s about just setting your stall out and just saying, this is a difficult time, there’s a lot of unknowns, this is what we’re putting in place initially, but we need you to feed into that. And then as we go forward we’ll be getting your input as we go. So, I think that can help allay people’s fears, so just really thinking about the framework that people can feed into, and then the two-way dialogue as you go into that transition period.

8. As well as initiating these types of conversations, are there any other proactive steps you’d recommend leaders take to help ease the transition of employees back to the workplace? Whilst, of course, prioritising their wellbeing and mental health. Surely every individual is experiencing this crisis differently, thus this demands a different approach from leaders, would you agree?

(13:14) I would agree, in terms of what I’ve been doing to lead my team remotely, and then what I’ve been advising other employers to do, it’s about guiding principles. There are so many unknowns, there are so many nuances. Everybody’s experience as you say has been different, so there’s no roadmap to any of this and I think then you need to then lean on guiding principles. So, my one has absolutely been around staff wellbeing, that needs to be a priority and you need to understand people’s individual circumstances so you know, how best to support them.

The next point is around offering people clarity, so about the current organisational and team priorities, as well as their own individual ones. Clarity around processes and systems. One of the main concerns I’ve had about people working from home is the risk of always-on and work bleeding into their home life, system overload, having people and information coming at you from different platform systems and that kind of pressure cooker that that can create. So, trying to simplify things as much as possible; one stop shops, consolidation, all of that I think is really key and good information being shared.

Mind has been doing a lot around internal communication during this time, but also doing frequently asked questions, documents to support any changes that we’re implementing to help people understand what’s happening. So, I think really focusing on offering people as much clarity as soon as you have it at that organisational level, communicating that down.

The next point for me has been around community. So how can we build that sense of togetherness while we’re working in a remote way? And indeed, as we move forward into a bit of a hybrid way. So, just making sure we’re not losing the social side of work and the natural support people would get from their manager or their colleagues. If we’re all in the same place and that sense of fun, there’s definitely time needed to invest in that. And we’ve been doing it within my team around art competitions, quizzes, there’s a virtual pub trip on a Friday, alcohol not always necessary, but fancy dress and, and bring your pet sometimes is. So, thinking about how you can still have that more social side of work while working in this way.

And then the final point for me has been around being reflective. We’ve all had to spring into action and mobilise quickly, but now it’s about pausing, What’s working? What isn’t? What do we need to change? And being reflective and seeking feedback is really important. But I think to support people with this transition is trying to give them as much control as possible and as much information as possible to help them.

9. Some leaders will unfortunately have to face the difficult decision to make headcount reductions. Do you have any advice you can share on how this process can be undergone compassionately, limiting wherever possible, any negative impact on mental health to those affected?

(16:05) Many employers will be facing this. Redundancies should be a last resort. Organisations that are more successful in protecting jobs and supporting their employees, will be more resilient and best able to recover once we transition out of this time. But I know for many organisations that perhaps it isn’t a choice, it has to happen.

In terms of how to support people’s wellbeing during this time, again, it links to my previous point about communication and being as transparent as possible, outlining the key steps and deadlines and providing a frequently asked questions document to support people. I think many organisations that have weathered this storm well, have really focused on their internal communications and I think continuing that would be helpful.

Then it’s about providing support to people affected during the process. So, what support is available internally? External support, do you subscribe to an employee assistance program, occupational health and so on? So, supporting people’s wellbeing during this difficult time will be important and making sure your managers are supported during this time, especially if they’re having to lead these processes, and have difficult conversations with people. So, just making sure there’s a support mechanism in place for them.

Once redundancies have been confirmed, supporting the people who are affected with their next step. So, CV writing, recruitment workshops, any support around financial issues and so on, and just helping people as much as possible during that time would be helpful. And then the final piece, I think, is thinking through the people who are not being made redundant and are staying within the workplace and how you can then acknowledge what’s happened, the uncertainty that people have had to face during this time, but then start looking to the future and getting people’s input on what happens next in terms of the organisational strategy, different ways of working that can be implemented and so on.

10. In future, it’s likely that hybrid teams, when part of the team works in the office part of the time, and the other part of the team works from home, part of the time will likely become more common in this next era of work. How will this impact the focus of, and the way in which mental health and wellbeing programs are delivered by employers?

(18:18) Employers will need to offer a range of mental health and wellbeing programs and make sure they can be accessed digitally and face-to-face. At Mind, a lot of our workplace wellbeing initiatives that we offer our staff such as reflective practice sessions, subsidised yoga, and pilates classes, we’ve temporary moved them online during lockdown to help ease the transition and reassure colleagues that they’ll be supported during this time. So I guess going forward, we’re going to need to then make sure that things can be accessed in a range of ways.

But one thing we have been thinking through is being more digital-first and thinking about what we offer and equally how we kind of collaborate. So for Mind, we’re definitely saying that some people might be in the office, some people might be working from home, but if you need to collaborate, then actually using a digital platform for that would be helpful. So, I think this is just part and parcel of how you need to think through the ways of working in terms of work management, delegation, information, as well as then the wellbeing and mental health, initiatives and programs that you have in place.

11. We would like to end this podcast with a question that we ask all of our guests. What do you think are the three qualities that make a good leader and crucially, do you think these qualities have changed as a result of the pandemic?

(19:40) For me, the qualities that I think make a good leader, first and foremost is about listening more than you talk and I think absolutely this is more important than ever. As I said, we had to spring into action, but I think employers and managers need to be in listening mode and hearing from their people around what’s working and what isn’t. So definitely, I think this one still holds up during this time.

My second quality is making sure you respond rather than react and again, I think this is even more important than ever because we are in a pressurised environment at the moment as you said, at the beginning. Leaders have been having to carry a lot, adapt quickly, support their teams to adapt quickly, and taking care of your mental health and making sure that you’re in a good place so you are managing those pressures, but responding rather than reacting is really important.

And the final point that I shared in my previous podcast with you was around focusing on clarity in terms of vision, processes, and systems and ways of working, which obviously I’ve spoken about today. So again, I think that those three qualities absolutely are key in the best of times and in difficult, challenging times that we find ourselves in now.

About this author

Emma Mamo is Head of Workplace Wellbeing at Mind. Emma joined Mind in 2007 and, since 2010, has led Mind’s campaigning for mentally healthy workplaces – playing a pivotal role in thought leadership to position mental health in the workplace as a key priority for employers and Government.

Emma has led culture change through engagement with employers, health and safety professionals, HR audiences and Government on mental health in the workplace and back-to-work support for people with mental health problems. She also supports networks of employers and stakeholders to share best practice and develop business-to-business peer support. Emma has worked in the disability sector since 2005 and previously worked for Mencap, the learning disability charity.

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