Many employees will welcome the move back into the office (or to hybrid working) with open arms and embrace the break away from those same four walls of their home. However not all employees will share this view.

Just as many people experience gym anxiety after not attending for several weeks (or months in my case!), many previously office-based employees who have been working almost exclusively at home will experience similar feelings of anxiety towards a return to the office. Using public transport and reintegrating with others in the office may be a source of concern for many. Breaking up previous routines around school-runs and other personal arrangements can also be difficult. So, how can employers make the transition to the office (or “new normal”) as smooth and as stress-free as possible?

During this process, employers should take steps to safeguard and support employees’ mental health through having the appropriate mental health processes in place. Failure to do so can result in lower job satisfaction, reduced productivity and higher staff turnover and the associated costs incurred through unnecessary loss of skilled employees and the financial costs of recruitment and training.

Under the Equality Act 2010, a health condition may be considered a disability if it has a long-term substantial adverse effect on a person’s normal day-to-day activities – with long-term primarily meaning it lasts, or is likely to last, longer than 12 months.

A particular difficulty for employers is where an employee's disability is not self-evident and may only impact or become evident in particular situations, or in relation to certain duties or responsibilities. Anxiety is one example of a so-called “hidden” or “invisible” disability and spotting the relevant signs or knowing when to ask follow-up questions is a difficult balancing act. Sometimes just asking twice if someone is ok can make all the difference. A lack of knowledge of a disability can be a defence to certain claims but bear in mind that the EHRC Statutory Code of Practice (at paragraph 5.15) requires that “an employer must do all they can reasonably be expected to do to find out if a worker has a disability”. The Code recognises the balancing act mentioned earlier by recognising that when making such enquiries “employers should consider issues of dignity and privacy and ensure that personal information is dealt with confidentially.”

The latest ONS figures demonstrate rapidly increasing numbers of self-reported long COVID in Scotland. We are also seeing more and more cases of long COVID manifesting in a way that likely meets the definition of disability, for example, brain fog or some form of cognitive impairment.

Where an employee’s ill mental health amounts to a disability, employers must consider making reasonable adjustments that will allow the employee to carry out their work. Some adjustments an employer may need to implement are:

  • Flexible working hours (if possible) – perhaps avoiding peak commuting times.
  • Changes to the employees working arrangements (this may mean continuing to primarily work from home and phasing in the move to a hybrid model if the employee is anxious about infection from travelling to/from work or working in the office more generally).
  • Changes to the employee’s duties.
  • Increased help and support from an employee’s line manager to ensure their workload is manageable.
  • Providing extra training, counselling, coaching and/or mentoring.

ACAS advice states that appropriate training should be provided to all managers to ensure they can effectively spot and address potential mental health issues amongst staff. Managers should be approachable, available and encourage team members to talk to them if they are having problems. Managers should regularly check how their employees are feeling, how their work is going and if they need support.

In some situations, however, employees may feel unable to approach their line managers to discuss their mental health and may find it easier to speak to someone who isn’t their direct manager. Designation of work colleagues as mental health champions/first aiders could provide employees with another means of support. They may also help to raise awareness and tackle the stigma of mental illness. The introduction of an anonymous suggestion/concerns box (or virtual equivalent) or regular staff surveys can also help.

Managers should also consider to what extent workplace anxiety might be impacting on absence and performance issues and manage these processes accordingly to reduce the risk of successful section 15 “arising from” claims under the Equality Act. In many instances, appropriate medical input will be needed to make informed decisions.
Producing a clear workplace policy (in consultation with staff and representatives) outlining the organisation’s visions, values and principles towards mental health and/or the new working pattern can also be helpful and may include:

  • The employer’s commitment to promote mental wellbeing.
  • The measures the organisation will take to limit work-related stress and support mental wellbeing in the workplace.
  • Details of the services available to staff who may be suffering from mental health conditions.
  • Advice and reassurance that anyone suffering from a mental health condition will be fully supported. Employers may request that employees suffering should seek help as early as possible in the knowledge the organisation will do all it can to help.
  • Details of the process to reintegrate staff absent from work due to stress, anxiety or mental illness.

Finally, continuing to talk about mental health can promote a positive attitude towards the subject and help to reduce the stigma that can still persist despite the progress made in recent times. Team meetings may be utilised to gauge how the team are feeling about the ongoing COVID-19 situation and to help tackle stress. Employers can take advantage of the in-person return to the workplace by encouraging informal chats. They can informally check-in on how staff are doing and continue to build trust and confidence.

Employers should focus on creating a workplace environment that makes it safe for people to speak up and managers can be strong role models by doing so themselves.

Awareness days or team building activities can be an opportunity to encourage staff to consider their mental health and get talking about it. This can help start the conversation and remind them of the organisation’s commitment to supporting their needs and promoting positive mental health.

An individual experiencing the emotions of gym anxiety might ask a friend to go with them for moral support, or perhaps seek the help of a Personal Trainer to overcome that feeling. In one way or another, support is often needed or the outcome might be total avoidance. Anxiety around returning to the workplace is likely to be an ongoing hot topic as the levels of COVID-19 infections fluctuate and everyone’s starting point and journey will be a different one.

How can we help?

Our specialist Employment team can provide further advice, so please do not hesitate to contact us.

This article was co-written by Jenna Alexander, Trainee Solicitor.