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Coming back together: wellness and the return to work


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I think we’d all agree that so far 2020 has been a year like no other. No one could have anticipated the impact of a global pandemic, which saw many businesses send their entire workforce home overnight. But with lockdown restrictions now easing, firms have been given the green light to welcome some furloughed or remote workers back to the office. But mentally, how will we all feel about a return to work? Chris Goodman, Joint Managing Director of Focus Group, explores the rollercoaster many of us have been on of late…

Over the last few weeks, there has been a dramatic shift in the Government’s ‘work from home if you can’ advice, which has evolved to ‘go back to the office if you can’ slant. We have been exceptionally fortunate here at Focus Group, with almost our entire workforce having been able to seamlessly and productively work from home throughout the severe lockdown restrictions, but by the very nature of our business – sales – it is inevitable that we will need to be back together albeit in an altered fashion.

It has been the most bizarre few months, but for some people, there have been obvious pros to remote working - no commute is something that thousands of employees will have undoubtably welcomed. No stressful, hot and unpleasant bus journeys, no wasted hours on the M25 and no awkward entanglements with your fellow train traveller. Some of us even hailed the ability to roll-out of bed and power up the pc in little more than our pyjamas.

In a lot of instances, most of us had a great deal of fun (let’s not mention home schooling however…!) thanks to video conferencing tools and instant messaging platforms that were not only used for business, but as a way of getting together with friends and family to take part in quizzes, bingo, house parties and such like.

But let’s face it, remote working is far from ideal for the majority of us. Humans crave social interaction and while an evening ‘Zoom’ may go some way to boost our spirits, it is far from a replacement for what we gain from face-to-face interaction and being close to people. We are a tactile nation of huggers and hand shakers, and interaction over webcam just doesn’t quite cut the mustard.

Changes are afoot

So what happens now? Over the next few weeks we will see many offices prepare for opening the doors once again. People can ditch the kitchen table and cautiously make their way back to their desks in their newly pandemic-proofed offices, but what will life be like? For now, many employers are looking at new working patterns, with employees brought in in teams or bubbles, making building changes and cleaning procedures – all which put employees and their hygiene at the heart of the workplace.

But it is these changes and ‘new normal’ that could potentially trigger workplace worries for many of us. After months in limbo and an existence so far removed from life before COVID-19, it is entirely natural and understandable that going back to an office environment may seem daunting and stressful - even though most of us have yearned for it for so long.

Worries will encompass anything and everything from safety procedures in the workplace, getting back to a long-forgotten routine, and even questioning your own ability to perform as you once did. In these instances, it is vital to take note of your anxieties and mental state, and immediately address any concerns.

As someone who has suffered with anxiety at various points in my life, I know just how debilitating it can be, which is a large part of the reason that Wellbeing has always been at the fore at Focus Group. We are lucky enough to have established our own in-house ‘Wellbeing Committee’, well before the onslaught of COVID-19 thankfully. Each volunteering committee member has received full mental health first aid training and continually works to raise awareness and provide on-going support for our employees who are struggling, mentally or physically, for whatever reason.

The committee has really come into its own throughout lockdown. We made it paramount to re-create the togetherness we’ve always had in Focus House, setting up weekly quizzes, dance-offs, regular team calls and even remote workouts held via zoom to keep everyone’s health and sprits up.

We also signed up to an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) online platform, which is a 24/7 helpline offering wellbeing advice and support to those that need it. As a close-knit firm we recognise that we are what we are because of our people, so it goes without saying that we want to set up every employee with the tools they need to be the best that they can be.

But after however many weeks of isolation and lockdown, reintegrating with society may not be easy for some. Even without a global pandemic, 25 per cent of people in England will have experienced a mental health problem each year, and one in six have reported issues like anxiety and depression in any given week.

So never has it been so important to be there for each other. Ask your colleagues how they are and genuinely take a real interest in the answer. Communication is key: if you’re the one feeling anxious, nervous or scared; be honest. Reach out to friends, family and colleagues – make sure someone is aware that you are struggling. This has been a time like no other, so it’s totally understandable, even if you’re not usually an anxious person, that feelings and emotions surrounding the pandemic are getting in the way of being you. Admission of how you are feeling is NOT a sign of weakness. Be kind to yourself and those around you, always.

The Mental Health At Work website has signposted the following as key actions for people returning to work:

  • Talk and connect – check-in with someone of you feel overwhelmed or isolated
  • Plan and prepare – ask what provisions have been made for a safe work environment
  • A return-to-work conversation – chat through your concerns and priorities with your line manager
  • Monitor and review – regular updates with line managers, as well as check-ins with yourself

(Visit www.mentalhealthatwork.org.uk for more information).

Our new office ‘normal’

Like many businesses across the globe, we absolutely can’t wait to welcome our employees back! Although the changes imposed will seem unfamiliar and unnerving at first, it will soon become the new ‘normal’ to maintain two metres from our colleagues, together with increased frequency of handwashing, use of screens or barriers and reconfigured seating arrangements. You will see corridors and other high traffic areas separated to ‘entry’ and ‘exit’ routes, doors adjusted to touchless devices for opening and boosting natural ventilation, whatever the weather!

Although the workplace we settle back into may not be the same one we left several months ago, I’m sure we will all appreciate how wonderful it will be being back ‘together’ safely and securely in shifts and bubbles, seeing familiar faces actually in the flesh rather than on a screen.

Here at Focus House, we will reignite work relationships once again over carefully marked out hand sanitising stations and unite over the regular cleaning of desks and equipment, and temperature tests! Sneeze guards may keep us distanced but at least we’ll all be in a (safe) proximity of real people, which is set to make a real difference to our positive mental wellbeing as we emerge from lockdown.

We will make the best of an unprecedented situation and carry on because that is what we do!