How to support mental wellness with more days in the office

How to support mental wellness with more days in the office
Opinion: Career Leaders

NABS’ head of support outlines strategies to help support people in to working more days in the office, especially when it is more vital than ever to create inclusive and safe spaces.

Companies in adland are starting to ask their staff to come into the office more. Whether mandated or ‘strongly encouraged’, at least three days a week in the office is becoming a new norm for many in our industry who had got used to remote working.

The daily commute and long days in the office were an unquestioned part of life pre-pandemic. However, after a few years of remote working, the thought of going back to that routine is a source of stress for many.

There’s a difference psychologically between inviting people to come in once a week, which may have been your previous requirement, and mandating a three- or even four-day presence in the office.

This change is going to affect people’s mental wellness. It’s down to employers and team leaders to make sure that they’re supporting the emotional health of their teams to make this new routine a success for all concerned.

New routines will affect employees’ mental wellness

The first step is to acknowledge that some of your employees will find it strenuous — mentally, physically, financially and life-wise — to come in more often.

It doesn’t matter if they used to come in five days a week. This routine is essentially a new one, after years of lockdown and prolonged working from home (and of course the lasting impact of COVID).

Working in person with colleagues and clients can take up more energy than communicating via the screen. It also requires a different kind of mental endurance.

As energising as it can be to work alongside people in the flesh, it can also feel more exhausting. To help combat fatigue, make sure that your people are encouraged to take breaks away from their desks, that they get some fresh air at lunchtime.

Make sure that people have someone to turn to if they’re finding office life difficult. It’s important to create a culture in which people can discuss and seek support for their mental wellness, as well as mechanisms to facilitate this.

Leaders, individuals and the community can make a difference

Lead from the top. Encourage your managers to discuss how they support their own mental wellness in the office.

And just as importantly, agree with individuals they’ll take personal responsibility for their own mental wellness — it can’t all be on the managers to spot if one of their team is struggling.

Signpost to mental wellness support, such as NABS’ support team, and allow your team members the time and space to access helpful resources.

Community plays an important part in mental wellness. We know from our own research at NABS, as well as the many people we speak with, that when people feel connected with others, they experience a sustained boost to their emotional health.

Encourage people to build networks in safe and supportive ways. In this way, you create an essential social structure, and enable people to exercise their social muscles again.

It’s vital to create an inclusive atmosphere in which everybody can feel welcome as they return to work.

Allowing people to bring as much of their whole selves to work as is comfortable for them, helps not only to smooth the transition, but will help you to get the best out of people.

When employees spend less time worrying about fitting in, and more time feeling relaxed, contented and valued for who they are, they have more brain space and energy to be creative and solutions-focused.

Relating to management style, encourage your team leaders to tailor their management to the individual. It’s important to understand workers’ individual needs to offer them the best support. For example, ask neurodivergent people, or those with disabilities, what reasonable adjustments they need, so that these can be implemented. Take time to find out what employees with caring responsibilities need to get into the office — staggered hours, perhaps.

Also worth considering is the impact on the cost-of-living crisis on people’s ability to get into work, with rising transport costs proving prohibitive for many, especially those from marginalised groups. Could you offer incentives or benefits to help with these challenges?

By investing in NABS’ Inclusive Leader training, your managers will be provided with the skills and mindset they need to create teams in which everybody feels included.

Certain behaviours discouraging people from returning to the office

Inclusivity and safety go hand-in-hand when it comes to helping people feel comfortable in the office. The timeTo campaign against sexual harassment at work conducted research around the end of lockdown, when offices were first starting to consider opening up again.

At that time, nearly half of respondents were worried about inappropriate behaviour being unleashed as people returned to office working. A few years on, and sexual harassment continues to be a scourge in our industry.

Those who are experiencing it, or are worried about experiencing it, will not be happy to come in to work regularly until you deal with it at a structural level in your organisation. Sign up to the timeTo code of conduct, enrol your staff in the timeTo training, and change the culture to one of safety and security.

When office life started to open up again a couple of years ago, there was a notable rise in calls to NABS relating to conflict in the workplace.

People weren’t used to working with each other in person; tensions between colleagues seemed more likely to build up when staff were all in the same working environment.

Implementing the above tactics should go some way to helping a smoother transition into office working — one in which people’s emotional health is fully supported, so that they can thrive at work.

 Annabel McCaffrey is head of support at NABS.

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