How employers can support employees’ mental health when reopening

You’re reopening your offices and are eager to welcome people back to a semblance of normalcy. But some of your employees may be feeling dread rather than anticipation.

“While that transition back to the office is inevitable for many companies, employers need to recognize that it is a change,” says Demetrios Marousis, MA, MBA, LPC, Director, Behavioral Health, Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield. “People have made drastic adjustments to keep themselves and their families safe, so transitioning back to the office should be incremental. Each employee is going to bring their nuanced level of stress, and employers need to recognize that this is difficult.”

Smart Business spoke with Marousis about how employers can support employees’ mental health as companies begin reopening offices, and why returning to “normal” may not be the best option.

How can employers help employees transition back to in-person work?

There will likely be stress. There is a lot of uncertainty, and employers need to have empathy and compassion. There can’t be a rushing back to pursue normal.

Everyone has had a different experience. Some have had the virus, while others left employment to care for children. Funerals and celebrations didn’t happen. All of those experiences have impacted mental health. In addition, the lack of a commute may have resulted in an indirect pay raise and more time with families, both of which are being withdrawn with a return to the office.

To ease the transition, avoid the musts, the absolutes. Be slow and incremental in reopening. And if you can’t, explain very clearly that this is what we need to do, and why. Explain the value proposition of why remote work worked for 16 months and why it’s not going to work going forward. If employees are experiencing nothing different than where they sit to work, it may be a hard sell to say there is value. If there were truly lost opportunities directly related to not having face-to-face contact, that may be a starting point of explaining the change.

And a retreat back to the old business model may not be necessary. Look at what has worked and what can and should be different going forward. Don’t necessarily look at the last year as an anomaly. Previously, many companies compelled employees to travel. Given the lessons learned, is the same frequency necessary? Do employees need to be in the office every day? Employees who were successful at home and met all of their responsibilities might resent that.

Why should employers be concerned about mental health?

If employees are struggling, they may be physically in the workplace but not focused or engaged. If they are distracted about what’s going on at home, or at school, they are not performing at their best. Employers who don’t take care of their employees are missing a significant opportunity to achieve the best possible outcomes for their business.

How can employers recognize and help those who may be struggling?

Look for signs someone is experiencing distress. Being out of the office wasn’t positive for everyone. It may have allowed some conditions to progress, such as alcohol use or depression. Being at home masks those things, but showing up every day makes them more obvious. Be attuned to changes in behavior.

And if someone is resistant to coming back, work to understand what is concerning and what conditions would be necessary to feel comfortable. Have they not been able to get vaccinated? Are they worried about taking the bus? Ask questions, but be ready for the answers. You can’t just shrug it off. Be prepared with resources. Many employers also offer employee assistance programs, which can be an entry point into a continuum of care. And employee-facing apps and digital tools can assess stress, nutrition, sleep patterns and mental health.

Train employees to be more aware of their co-workers to create an environment of destigmatizing mental health and substance use issues. Prepare them to interact and be involved and help each other through the stresses and challenges. Most important, recognize that a return to the office is going to impact people in different ways. Don’t rush it, and be flexible in what your new normal is going to look like.

Insights Health Care is brought to you by Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield