This is an anxious time for all of us, and as an employer you have a responsibility to look after your staff. We chatted to Matthew Holman, Owner and Mental Health Consultant at Simpila Healthy Solutions, which provides mental health first aid training to find out how we can best support employees.

How do we help staff manage the anxiety of catching the virus when they return to work?

It is really important that companies are very clear in their responsibility for ensuring the safety of their employees returning to the workplace.  Anxiety likes to be fixated on uncertainty, so having the ability to manage as much of these as possible is critical in the role of employers.  If social distancing is to be enforced, make sure that everyone complies to this.  Even as some think that they are not impacted by the virus, does not mean that those struggling with anxiety won’t be in constant fear or worry about contracting it.

As and when we return to the workplace we must be mindful of how others feel about this.  Be honest, be open and encourage the conversation to include how employees are feeling.  If they are feeling worried, anxious or concerned spend time to understand why they feel this way, and then encourage changes to support them through these feelings.

If we have employees who have been unable to work from home due to anxiety and have therefore been signed off through the whole lock down period how do we re-integrate them?

It is important to remain in contact with employees (even those who have been furloughed) during the lock down period to ensure that they still feel connected and valued by the workplace.  People will struggle with anxiety for many reasons and these are not just directly impacted by the workplace.  We have to be mindful that the workplace is actually a very supporting environment for managing positive mental health.  We want our employees to come to work with the feeling of purpose, the feeling of support, and when things are difficult I can be open and talk about these with my managers.

How can we ensure employees in somewhere like a call centre environment (often who are a younger demographic) act in a responsible way towards other staff, particularly if other staff have anxiety?

We need to create greater awareness around the topic of anxiety. Mostly people react in a challenging way when they do not really understand how others are feeling.  Anxiety will create the worst outcomes, will make the individual feel a failure, and want them to withdraw or avoid the challenge at all costs.  It is imperative to create company-wide awareness of the challenges, education on how we can manage our anxieties, and improve support to those who are struggling.

The biggest challenge is based upon our personal opinion and judgement – and this is often uneducated opinion and misinterpreted judgement of others.  Social media and the media in whole are fuelling additional anxieties and this needs to be understood and recognised by workplaces. Be careful what you read, be careful what you say, and be careful what that impact may be on others.

Where can we draw the line on what is reasonable and unreasonable anxiety and how do we deal with an employee who is panic stricken about catching the virus?

We are seeing a significant increase in anxiety during the current crisis and this is a normal reaction to the changes and challenges that we are all facing.  The line is clear when the anxiety is the thing that overwhelmed you, takes over your thinking and shows multiple signs (physical, emotional and behavioural) then we should be considering seeking additional help.  If the anxiety grows it can become a serious mental illness.  We want to encourage people to challenge their thoughts to try and protect their mental wellbeing.  If you have a thought that is negative, how could you reflect that into a positive thought?  It might need others to help you, but first and foremost talk to someone about your anxiety / fear. Hopefully they will be able provide support or thoughts to challenge this thinking.

If someone tests positive once in the workplace how do we manage the message to others and prevent panic?

It is important to be very clear in the communication of this to manage anxiety. It is better to be open and transparent than to pretend that nothing is happening.  Those who are anxious will no doubt hear about the challenges through gossip or the grapevine. It is better to be up front and straight and then to offer the guidance for all staff to follow.

How can we help manage anxiety in staff who are nervous about travelling to work?

We have to encourage staff who are anxious to be able to discuss why/what they are feeling worried about.  Perhaps for the short-term we should consider changing the work patterns (if this is possible?).  Following the announcements by the Government on 10th May people have been invited to go back to work by their own transport means – walk, cycle or drive, but to avoid using public transport where possible. Compliance to the guidelines is important to help speed up the recovery and we should encourage this through the workplace.

Are there any general techniques employers should be encouraging staff to try now?

There is a big need right now for companies to adjust their expectations on employees.  We have to remind ourselves that these are not normal times, and we have gone from living to surviving right now at all levels. Whilst there are some that will thrive through the current crisis, there are many that are struggling to cope.  Everyone is impacted by this at the moment, and this will be in many different ways.  No one size will work for everyone.

One tip is to encourage each member of staff to continue to monitor their own mental health. By asking themselves, those around them, family, colleagues how they are really feeling then we can start to learn more about our mental health. If I feel overwhelmed, worried, concerned or unhappy I should be able to tell someone, then we can work on how we can change/challenge those feelings.

We are hearing more that those with underlying anxiety issues are feeling overwhelmed when being told they should do this, and they should do that over this period. It is also important to remember that if you choose not to do things that is OK as well.  It is not wasted time if it is recovery time.

How can employers and colleagues support returning staff who may have experienced bereavement during this time?

If this has happened it of course will have left a big mental impact on the individual.  We really do need to be open to deeper and more meaningful conversations about this.  We need to understand how this individual is feeling, we need to help them to feel connected and able to come back.

Mental Health Awareness week this year – 18th-24th May – the theme is KINDNESS.  We are encouraging everyone to try and practice some acts of kindness during this week.  It is such an important part of our survival through this crisis.  Reach out to those who might be vulnerable, to those that you are worried about and do something kind.  

We have been delivering weekly Promoting Positive Mental Health 60 minute virtual workshops over the past seven weeks.  We still have workshops open and would love to see more people attending these sessions. You can find our open courses here: 

We are also now delivering Virtual Half Day training sessions for the following courses: Mental Health Awareness Training (MHFA) and the Mental Health First Aider Refresher Training (MHFA).