Back to work: Freedom Day & mental health in your workplace

As “Freedom Days” are being announced all over Australia, many business owners and managers are preparing for the future of work. Sure enough, COVID-19 restrictions are easing, and many businesses and organisations will begin their return to the office – but it’s not a return to normality by any means. Instead, leaders will be finding their feet in the “new normal” while navigating the safe re-integration of people into the workplace. 

A key element of your transition is the management of mental health risks. The United Project recommends that business owners and leaders develop a Back to Work Mental Health Action Plan to support team members during this period of transition. For instance, adjusting to new working practices will take time, people may be anxious about returning to the office while COVID is still around, and long lockdown periods may have had lasting effects on wellbeing. 

If you are looking for practical measures that you can take to support your staff when Freedom Day rolls around, look no further. We’ve put together four important activities and initiatives that should form part of your Back to Work Mental Health Action Plan in the lead up to Freedom Day.

1. Before returning to work, ask your team to complete a brief mental health check-in survey.

This questionnaire is designed to help leaders connect and check-in with team members before their return to the office. Responses to this survey can help shape the remainder of your Back to Work Mental Health Action Plan by highlighting areas of particular concern.

We are focused on equipping leaders with the right tools to support their people, so we have created a questionnaire that you can use.

2. Consider if your policies are ready to mitigate the mental health impacts of returning to the office.

In the post-lockdown environment, your people are facing challenges and situations that most likely didn’t exist two years ago. The experts at PwC(1) have created an excellent checklist to support leaders to create an empathetic culture through policies that accommodate the “new normal”. PwC essentially suggest an in-depth review of your current approach, and some questions to ask yourself as a leader. 

As part of your review, consider what you will do if your mental health check-in survey reveals that some employees are not comfortable returning to the physical workplace just yet. Do you have a plan to provide tools and resources for team members who will continue to work remotely? From a 

human resources perspective, have you planned for changes in the management and delivery of benefits for remote workers? 

We suggest that you also contemplate strategies for inclusion in a workplace where people are both working remotely and in the physical office. How will you ensure that your remote team members can be included in office conversations and events?

Questions like these should help you identify gaps in your policies and areas for improvement in your culture. Your findings should be incorporated into your Back to Work Mental Health Action Plan, and considered key priorities for implementation in the lead up to Freedom Day.

3. Schedule regular check-ins with your team.

After the initial check-in survey, some (or all) of your people may begin the transition back to the physical workplace. However, your Back to Work Mental Health Action Plan should have a long-term focus – well beyond Freedom Day. It could take anywhere from 6-12 months for people to adjust and settle back in after such a long time away from the office. Organising regular catch-ups is a good way to keep your finger on the pulse and gain crucial insight that may assist with the early detection of mental health concerns. 

According to BelievePerform, leaders should use their check-ins with team members to identify any stressors or pressures they may be facing(2). This personalised approach may also shine a spotlight on any personal matters that are influencing their wellbeing or performance. Above all, these check-ins should facilitate open, honest discussions about mental health – and show that you genuinely care about supporting your people.

4. Be aware of referral pathways for your team members who are struggling.

The whole point of your Back to Work Mental Health Action Plan is to safeguard against the possible adverse psychological impacts of returning to work after Freedom Day, but what if someone on your team needs additional support? 

As a leader, you need to know about the best referral pathways for professional mental health support. Is there an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) in your workplace? If not, this an important priority to action – research shows that more than 80% of suicides globally occur when individuals are within the “working population”, which is between 15-64 years of age(3). That’s why it is so important to provide support at work, where many of us spend a significant proportion of our daily lives. 

At The United Project, we believe that a commitment to mentally healthy workplaces can save lives. That’s why our Team United Development Program will build your team’s resilience while uniting them in the fight against mental health stigma at work.

1. PwC. 2020. Returning to the workplace.
2. BelievePerform. 2021. 10 tips for great mental health check-ins with your team.
3. SuperFriend, 2020, “Indicators of a Thriving Workplace Study”.