For some employees, returning to work feels like an important step toward regaining pre-pandemic normality. However, for others, returning to the office after an extremely stressful and/or traumatic 18 months will be daunting. While employers can’t turn back the clock for their employees, they can and should offer options, strategies, and benefits that will aid their employees’ mental health and wellness. 

The effects of the pandemic in the workplace

Every worker has experienced the effects of an increased and sustained level of uncertainty and fear over the course of the pandemic. Some employees experienced even more extreme versions of mental health stress. For example, many people cared for or lost loved ones and friends to COVID-19. Others worked from home under difficult circumstances or while also managing at-home learning for their children. Some worked without adequate childcare for small children or kids with additional needs. Employees may have had family members lose work during the pandemic, adding financial strain to an otherwise trying time. 

COVID-19 also interrupted treatments for chronic illnesses or mental health or substance use disorders. In fact, according to research from McKinsey, the pandemic actually “placed broader segments of the population at risk for developing conditions such as depression, anxiety, alcohol use disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.” Restrictions on medical appointments may also have kept some people from seeking help for these types of mental health-related issues.

Why promote mental health in the workplace

Many employees returning to the office have had their mental health impacted either mildly or severely over the past year and a half — and it's important for employers to keep these extenuating circumstances in mind. Even mild additional stress can take its toll on employees and make them less resilient in the face of changing circumstances and less able to cope with stress in the workplace. 

In the past, it was common for employers to concern themselves only with employees in a working capacity, leaving workers to deal with their health and wellbeing on their own. However, it is becoming more common for employers to take an interest in their employees’ general wellbeing, as this impacts their ability to work productively. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” Increasingly, employers are taking it upon themselves to help build up employees’ mental health to create a more holistic workplace. 

The benefits of good mental health and wellbeing for employees are fairly obvious and critically important, but there are benefits to employers as well. Focusing on mental health in the workplace creates resilient employees that can deal with reasonable adversity, disruption, and stress. Employees with optimal mental health are able to focus better and be more productive in the workplace. 

Creating a workplace that helps sustain good mental health and wellbeing, while being flexible enough to help employees cope with any issues that crop up, is good business in the long term.

How to promote mental health and wellbeing in the workplace

Here are 10 ways employers can help lessen the impact of mental health issues as employees return to work. 

  1. Communicate upcoming changes: The sustained stress of the pandemic has impacted employees’ abilities to deal with change.  Offering earlier notice of changing work schedules, return to work procedures, or office routines will allow employees to prepare.
  2. Promote return-to-work safety (link to ultimate guide to return to work checklist): Many employees may not have been in close proximity to others for a long time and may be anxious about staying safe in the office. Knowing that their employer is focusing on their safety can lessen these fears. 
  3. Create flexibility for scheduling and leave requests: For example, you could offer flexibility for employees to work from home if they need to deal with other elements of their lives (like children, pets, or appointments) or provide leave to employees facing mental health struggles. This will give them the space they need to recover and return to work more quickly. Employees who don’t have this flexibility can end up burnt out and require even more time to return to full productivity. 
  4. Encourage employees to take advantage of employee assistance programs: Many employers offer employee assistance programs that are designed to help workers resolve problems that may impact their ability to work. They are typically programs that assist employees with alcohol or substance abuse, child or elder care, relationship challenges, financial or legal problems, and traumatic events. 
  5. Normalize conversations about mental health in the workplace: Mental health struggles used to be taboo topics in the workplace, but the pandemic brought many of these issues to the forefront. Normalizing the discussion of mental health and wellbeing in the office can destigmatize the topic and ensure employees seek help sooner.
  6. Check in on your employees more often: Many workplaces check in on employees annually, typically by issuing a survey on wellbeing. Managers should instead check in with team members more regularly to get a better understanding of the issues they are dealing with outside the office.
  7. Offer counseling as part of standard health benefits: Many employers are beginning to offer counseling as a standard part of employee benefits. This shift reflects the changing place mental health now takes in workplace priorities. 
  8. Develop an internal mentorship program: Internal mentorship programs can help mentees feel more supported and connected in the workplace, and mentors feel affirmed and fulfilled as they pass along new skills. Fostering stronger connections in the office can create resilience in employees.
  9. Create robust wellness programs: Wellness programs can help build coping mechanisms that can in turn increase employees’ capacity to deal with negative situations in the workplace and at home. These are most effective if they create an impact in employees’ lives, like teaching financial wellness or building a meditation habit.
  10. Consider soft-launching your return to work schedule (link to Brandon’s blog post): Instead of scheduling all employees to return to work full-time on the same day, soft-launching the return to work can help employees ease back into office life at an easier pace. 

As employees return to the office in earnest in the coming months, employers have the opportunity to offer more robust support that can mitigate some of the effects of the stressful pandemic era and help employees recover from the trauma of the COVID-19 era. 

Employers who encourage employees to focus on their mental health will see marked benefits in the long run, fostering a more resilient workforce better equipped to manage future disruptions and uncertainty.