Strategies for Addressing Mental Health When Returning to the Office

As some organizations prepare to invite individuals back to the workplace, they must have a clear strategy for addressing mental health and well-being. No matter what policies are enacted, employers need to understand that not everyone will be happy with their choices and must be ready to support their people.

The pandemic has created a unique opportunity for organizations to evolve their culture and create lasting change around mental well-being in the workplace. Organizations that seize this opportunity will enjoy the benefits that come with a supportive culture including higher employee retention, greater morale and loyalty and improved performance and productivity.

Here are several strategies to address mental health as you return to the workplace.


Invest in Empathetic Leadership

Empathy is a trait that we all have, and it is strengthened the more we use it. Now is the perfect time for leaders and managers to start practicing empathy.

Continually investing in empathetic leadership skills will be a growing part of every leader’s role. Empathy in leaders is directly correlated with decreasing an individual’s chance of burnout and increasing their sense of belonging. This can contribute to overall loyalty and commitment to the organization.

As organizations create their return-to-office plans, they will need to rely on their leaders to manage in a flexible and empathetic manner. Leading in this manner requires organizations to place just as much focus on supporting their leaders as they do with their front-line staff.

Leaders must also understand that people don’t want to be valued just for their productivity. They want to be seen as dynamic humans with rich lives outside of the workplace. Organizations benefit when employees have full-spectrum well-being, from being happy and challenged at work to being healthy outside of work.

Empathic leadership allows managers to build strong relationships with their people. It creates a greater level of trust, making it more likely that an individual is open to sharing when something is impacting their well-being.


Provide Mental Health Training for Leadership and Managers

In this period of change and constant adjustments, we must look out for one another. Frontline managers play a critical role in supporting the well-being of their employees. They are going to be called on to lead the charge back into the workplace.

Leaders and managers must respond appropriately when an employee is in distress or needs help. This does not mean that it is the job of a manager to be a therapist. But managers need to be able to recognize when there is an issue, be comfortable addressing it and know the well-being resources available that can help.

Organizations must ensure that management-level employees are thoroughly trained to have critical conversations around mental health in the workplace. Training should be part of a long-term strategy and scheduled at regular intervals to keep ensuring progress is being made in transforming organizational culture.


Carefully Consider Return to Office Plans

While many workers never left the workplace during the pandemic, others have adjusted to working remotely for well over a year. Employers who are inviting their people back to the office will have many challenges to overcome, including the impact of new variants of the virus, mask and vaccination requirements and willingness to return to the workplace.

When considering your return to the workplace plans, flexibility and clear communication are paramount in helping employees adjust once again to a new environment. The workplace that they are returning to will not be the same as the one they left.

Communicate the plan clearly for returning to the office, whether you expect employees to work a hybrid schedule or return full-time. The communication should detail when employees are expected to return, any new policies and safety protocols, changes to the office layout, and most importantly, the “why” behind the return to the workplace. Be very clear about the benefits of returning to the workplace, including building a connection with co-workers, better innovation and increased communication.

If your organization is returning to the workplace, managers will need to be trained on organizational expectations. Like your employees, they must understand why you are asking them to return to the office.


Understand and Prevent Burnout

Effectively managing and preventing burnout requires strategies that impact individuals, teams, and organizations overall. At their core, these strategies may represent a cultural change within the management of a company to set different expectations around setting a healthier work-life balance.

These strategies can be implemented at micro, mezzo, and macro levels. Micro interventions include encouraging employees to take regular short breaks throughout their day.  Mezzo interventions can consist of encouraging employees to take non-working lunch breaks, setting meetings for 50 minutes instead of an hour, and setting boundaries around working during the evenings or weekends. Macro interventions such as taking a vacation and not working (this is challenging for many workers) is a great way to recharge your batteries.

Training all employees on what burnout is, how to spot it and offering strategies for preventing it is a critical step in supporting employee well-being. But there is more that leaders and managers can do such as role modeling behaviors that prevent burnout. They must also continually evaluate the workload of their employees and make appropriate adjustments to prevent burnout.

These small steps can go a long way in mitigating the risk for burnout and towards creating a workplace culture that cultivates positive morale, employee engagement, and retention.