Business experts

Expert opinion: The post-Covid workspace – five ways employers can protect the mental health of their workforce

Written by Catherine Hawkes.

Catherine Hawkes


With four-in-10 employees anxious about returning to the workplace, employers should be taking steps now to implement a safe return to work for their employees.

A crucial part of any return to work will involve protecting the physical safety of employees but also their mental health.

It is well known that many employees do not feel comfortable speaking about their mental health. Therefore, employers should be proactive in their approach by adopting measures to support them.

In addition to considering the wellbeing of all employees generally, particularly those with existing mental health issues, employers will need to think carefully about certain groups of workers who will naturally be anxious about returning to work. This includes employees with underlying health conditions or those living with clinically, or clinically extremely, vulnerable family members.

Consideration will also need to be given to employees returning from a period of furlough. The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme has recently been extended from 1 July to 31 October 2020 and has become more flexible.

From 1 July, under the revised 'flexible furlough' scheme, furloughed employees can now return to work for any amount of time and in any shift pattern through agreement with their employer.

Employees who have been on furlough for a period of time may, depending on how an employer has communicated with them throughout this period, feel isolated from the business.

They may also fear that their role will be at risk of redundancy which can heighten the anxiety which they may already be feeling, especially if redundancies are taking place within their employer.

We suggest a number of steps which employers should be taking to manage a return to work:

1. Understand employees’ concerns
It is essential that employers understand how their employees are feeling at this time and the concerns they may have about returning to work or job security. This is a crucial part of planning any return to work.

Employees will want to know that employers have given thought to their return and are conscious about reintegrating them into the business as well as concerns about safeguarding their mental health and wellbeing. Employers should take the time to listen to valid concerns about returning to work, such as commuting on public transport for example. These concerns are particularly important if an employee or someone they live with has an underlying health condition.

These concerns may well be heightened from 1 August, when clinically extremely vulnerable people will no longer be advised to shield. If they need to work and cannot do so from home, they will be able to do so provided strict COVID-19 health and safety guidance is followed within the workplace. This may give rise to the individuals themselves not wishing to return to work because of health concerns; and those living with them may be equally concerned if their relatives return to work, about the effect on their own health and safety.

2. Engage in meaningful communication with employees
Effective communication is essential to protect the mental health of returning employees. Maintaining a clear dialogue with employees in advance of them returning to work will be important to identify any concerns. A supportive line manager can, therefore, go a long way to reassuring an employee and keeping them informed of any important changes which they may have missed while on furlough leave.

3. Up-skill line managers
Taking time to invest in line managers should be encouraged. Employers should give thought to virtual training in order to upskill line managers, particularly on how to effectively respond to and manage employee concerns surrounding a return to work.

4. Understand your legal obligations
Employers have a legal duty to protect the health and safety of their employees, which includes protecting employees’ mental health. Failing to do so can be costly for employers with the Health and Safety Executive having the power to award unlimited fines for serious breaches.

Further, employees who have a mental health condition may satisfy the legal definition of disability under the Equality Act 2010. Therefore, they will be protected from discrimination. Employers are required to make reasonable adjustments for employees who are placed at a disadvantage due to their disability. For employees with mental health issues, reasonable adjustments could include amending their work hours or their location of work, allowing them to work, or continue to work, from home, and travelling at off-peak hours to avoid busy public transport.

5. Be flexible with working arrangements
It is good practice for employers to be flexible with working arrangements regardless of whether an employee may satisfy the legal definition of disability under the Equality Act.

By taking steps now to plan for employees return to work, and adopting a flexible approach, employers are likely to see long term benefits in employee engagement which should reduce presenteeism and sickness absence over time as well as improving the overall culture of the business.

Catherine Hawkes is an associate at Royds Withy King, specialising in corporate and employment law