Why mental health support is crucial as we all return to the office

The smartest employers will take a nuanced approach to tackling their teams’ reopening anxiety, says TOG’s People Director, Sarah Gillett

To many people the prospect of returning to the workplace feels like climbing an ice-covered mountain covered in pitfalls. Some teammates will be coming back from furlough after as many as 18 months off work. Others will be returning to the office for the first time in over a year. Either way, it’s like coming back from parental leave; all of a sudden, you’re plunged into doing something you haven’t done for a long time. You’ve been in a different routine, working in a different way. And of course, we’re not just talking about being in the office either – you’ve got to get comfortable with the idea of a regular commute and packed Tube carriages again, too.

Alongside furloughed staff, you’ve then got everyone who’s worked tirelessly through the pandemic; who in March last year agreed to work from home for the next few weeks, then months, and now a year plus. They’ve been working longer hours glued to their screens and the lines between the beginning and end of work have completely blurred: “I might as well do a six o’clock Zoom meeting as I’d be travelling home then anyway…” and so on. In this strange landscape, employers have to understand that reopening anxiety is different for every single person, because people have had such different experiences. You can’t just put everyone in one big ‘back to business as usual’ box and expect your teams to return to work as though they only left the office yesterday.

At TOG, we were lucky because we put in place a mental health at work programme just before the pandemic started. Then, as the first lockdown hit, we knew that we’d have to go further to support our 350-plus team. Many TOG staff embrace hybrid working and hop around our different work spaces (outside of lockdowns, of course), but even so, the prospect of working from home alone when you’re used to a variety of environments and a collaborative culture was a huge upheaval.

So, we started offering volunteers a two-day mental health first aid training course. The course aims to help TOG staff to communicate effectively with colleagues when someone asks for help. It covers skills including non-judgemental listening, spotting signs of mental stress and signposting colleagues to specialist services or support. Initially, it was just for my team – the People Team – but we had so much interest from other parts of the business that we set up an additional one-day training course for mental health champions. The training is provided by Mental Health First Aid England and has to be renewed every three years, much like physical first aid training.

TOG now has one mental health champion for every 25 employees

Initially, we had 11 people from different areas of the business trained as mental health champions. Now, we’re rolling out the second phase and getting another 11 people trained. TOG currently has one mental health champion for every 25 employees. We want to get to a place where all our people managers are trained, because they’re usually the first port of call when someone has an issue. Some of my team would like to go even further down the qualification route, which is fantastic.

We train people to deal with cuts and bruises, but not with isolation or feeling overwhelmed. There should be government guidance for mental health first aid in the workplace as there has been for physical first aid since 1981; companies of between five and 50 employees should have one trained first aider, and another one for every 50 employees after that in ‘higher hazard’ environments. To that end, TOG has written to Nadine Dorries, the Minister for Mental Health, Suicide Prevention and Patient Safety. We haven’t had a response yet. We’ll be following up.

Right now, the number one thing our people ask us for is support with mental health, which we’re working hard to deliver on. We also offer them free access to an online service called Myndup, through which they can have professional counselling. A big part of mental health first aid is knowing where to signpost people to get the help they need if it’s a more serious issue, and we’ve tripled our use of Myndup during the pandemic. As people return to the workplace after such a brutal period, it’s become a top priority to ensure our teams are supported. People have been through a massive process of re-evaluation and we think they are going to expect their employers to be much more in tune with their needs.

With this in mind, the second and third things our people ask for are support on being physically healthy and time to exercise during the workday. We want to provide links and partnerships so activities are easily accessible and cost-effective. The mental health piece is part of a whole jigsaw. We firmly believe that the more you can provide support in any area, the more people will stay and grow with your business. We’re also working a lot on people’s development, and it has all got to be done at the same time, together – that’s when people really feel they’re invested. It’s a big picture and understanding how to help team members or colleagues return to work in a healthy way is just one part of that.

I’ve been going into the office whenever possible around lockdowns – so I’m not anxious about reopening. I just can’t wait for more people to be back and working together. That’s why I do a people job.

Sarah Gillett is TOG’s people director