Mental health in HR and returning to work during uncertain times

Thanks to Michelle Gyimah for this week’s blog.  Michelle is the Director of Equality Pays, a gender equality consultancy dedicated to closing workplace pay gaps.

It is a confusing time for both HR teams and employees in terms of what that return will look like.

At times like this, employees may turn to HR for mental health support as well as their regular issues. Mental health in HR becomes a huge topic.

So, how can HR teams prepare for this in the midst of such uncertainty?

1 – Focus on mental health and wellbeing

Burnout is real as you juggle so much responsibility right now. With so many looking to you for support and leadership, it can be easy to put your own needs last as a way to cope with the pressure.

So, for mental health in HR, what can you do to look after yourself?

  • Look after yourself mentally and physically – as the saying goes ‘you cannot serve from an empty vessel.’ Eleanor Brown
  • When things are getting tough and emotions are running high, take a break. Step away from your computer. Go for a walk. Have a drink of water. Do something to interrupt your thought patterns and high emotions. Then come back to the problem with a clearer head.
  • If you need help dealing with stress, anxiety or burnout, prioritise getting that help. Lean on trusted friends, use your internal EAP or find resources and tools to help you take care of your mental health

2 – Build a framework to make the transition back to work as smooth as possible

Having a framework will help you to prepare for most circumstances to help you feel more in control, instil confidence in your leadership ability and your ability to keep your employees safe. This will help support, not only your mental health, but also the mental health of the rest of the team.

Create a dedicated team.

Prepare your return to work plan with a team of people who understand the day to day operations of your business. They are best placed to provide ideas and insights into how to put together a credible return to work plan.

What does return to work look like?

Will it be all at once, phased, or on rotation? This will depend on the size of your organisation and the type of work that you do. Some companies and schools in Europe are considering allowing people back in rotation “People can work in two-week cycles, on the job for four days then, by the time they might become infectious, 10 days at home in lockdown. The strategy works even better when the population is split into two groups of households working alternating weeks.”

Things to consider will be travelling to and from work, is this safe for employees to do? Social distancing at work – does the work-space need to be reconfigured to accommodate this? What will the sanitation rules be for employees? Will you provide/expect staff to wear masks, use hand sanitizer, wash hands on a regular basis, no longer share phones etc.?

What will the working hours be?

Are you expecting your workforce to work their usual hours? Or will there be more flexibility?’s article ‘on e-presenteeism and burnout’ reported that: “54% can also see the benefits that come with working from home and would like their employer to give them the option to do so more often when lockdown is over.”

You may find that after furlough or working from home, more people request some form of flexible working. Will you consider these? How will you decide on what that looks like for your organisation? How will you prepare your team managers to hold these conversations?

Risk assessments

As an employer it is up to you ensure your employees’ safety. Make sure that your risk assessments are up to date to minimise the impact of Coronavirus for your workforce.

Mental health and well being

This was starting to become a more common topic for workplaces but this is going to be even more important. Everybody is under an immense pressure and whilst we’re all in the same boat, we’re all experiencing things differently. According to research by Kaiser Family Foundation, 45% of people polled said that worry and stress about coronavirus had a negative impact on their mental health.

Be mindful to be looking out for the signs of emotional stress, burnout and general anxiety. Be on the lookout for employees and co-worker struggling with their return to work. Common signs are changes in performance, productivity, missing deadlines, calling in sick, feeling irritable and so on.

It’s useful for HR to think about educating line managers on being aware of what the signs of emotional distress are and to be able to encourage staff to seek help via their existing EAP or to be able to signpost them with to resources that will help. There are numerous organisations that specialise in helping people deal with stress, anxiety and burnout issues so it shouldn’t be difficult to find to be able to find an access to those resources for your staff.

HR teams also should ensure that there is support for those who may be grieving for friends and loved ones. If you have a bereavement policy, this would be a good time to update it if necessary.

If you already have an Employee Assistance Programme ensure it is fit for purpose and that your employees know how to access it. If you don’t have one, ensure that you are able to offer your employees access to resources that will be of use to them.

Embrace flexible working long-term

It goes without saying that now would be a good time for organisations to review their flexible working policies. Remote working is only one form but managers should also be aware of the other options, from job-sharing to flexitime and staggered hours.

This is a great opportunity for organisations who have never implemented flexible working before either formally or informally. What Covid-19 has shown us is that in order for organisations to flourish even in a time of crisis, flexible working is a must.

So use this time while transitioning your staff back to work to review your flexible working policies and ensure that you have open conversations about how it could work, train managers in how to handle flexible working requests and make fair and transparent decisions around how this will work in practice, as well as understanding how to manage flexible working teams.

Future lockdown preparation

It goes without saying that firms need to be prepared for the fact that this may not be the last time that lockdown happens on this scale. So contingency planning for how to react very quickly to a crisis like this would go a long way to relieve anxieties but also help you feel more in control should something like this happen again.

Practical steps would include things like making sure that your details of your employees are up to date, your IT systems are equipped to manage with people working from home and communicating the procedure to all staff so they know what to do and expect next time.

As HR professionals your focus will be on doing what is best for your organisation and employees, but it’s important not to forget your own needs. The decisions you’re making impact you too, so when making them ask yourself what would help you as well.

Michelle Gyimah’s unique understanding of employee engagement and workplace challenges enables her to embed practical application into her consultancy.

Michelle is a passionate advocate for enabling women (and men) to progress in their careers in a way that suits their outside of work responsibilities and lifestyle choices. She does this by empowering workplaces to radically rethink how they can support their employees to thrive at work.

Michelle has over 12 years’ experience of working at the Equality and Human Rights Commission and holds a Masters in Human Rights from The University of Manchester and is a regular contributor to numerous national business magazines, international conferences and lives in Valencia, Spain. 



Share this story

Sign up for industry updates