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No “Back to Normal”: Employers Must Prioritize Mental Health in Next Phase of COVID-19

We started hearing about how to navigate the “next normal” or “post-pandemic” life as early as fall of 2020, as the first wave of remote employees were asked to return to in-office work. It was comically presumptuous of us to think that we had arrived at that moment, or that there was anything normal about the state of the world back then. Two and a half years into the global pandemic, we recognize that “normal” looks a lot different now that COVID-19 has rewritten the rules about how, where, and when we work, as well as the mental health support systems employees need in this new environment.

A recent McKinsey survey found 44 percent of employees who have not returned to in-person work believe doing so will negatively impact their mental health. For Black employees and employees with children, the numbers are even higher at more than 50 percent. Even among workers already back in the office, 36 percent report that returning to work undermined their mental health.

But let’s not forget the mental health needs of those employees who have continued to work on-site throughout the course of the past several years. Low-income and essential workers have worked throughout the pandemic and evidence suggests both groups are more likely to experience depression and anxiety. These workers face time and resource constraints, and their job functions often result in increased stress levels.

Given these circumstances, it is critical that employers re-evaluate their mental health offerings for all employees to ensure they effectively help workers manage the potential fear, hesitancy, and disruption caused by the COVID pandemic and the “next normal”.  For many organizations, reboarding, or re-onboarding can provide an opportunity to make meaningful updates to mental health policies and ensure that all employees have access to, and awareness of, the resources offered.

Re-onboarding is not new. Before COVID-19, it was used effectively to help employees returning from an extended leave reacclimate to the workplace. Rather than throwing employees right into the deep end after two years away from the office, re-onboarding is a life jacket to help workers keep their heads above water during the transition.

Re-onboarding can reduce confusion among employees who are unsure what to expect. Employers need to provide clear guidance on expectations regarding in-person vs. remote work and set guidelines around how teams will communicate and stay connected. Smart organizations are learning to be flexible. After all, one in three Americans say they would quit if remote work is not an option, and millions have already left jobs in search of remote opportunities.

A strong re-onboarding program also gives organizational leaders an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to supporting the mental health of all employees – regardless of occupation. Leaders can recalibrate how their organization engages with and supports its employee’s mental health.  As One Mind at Work advised earlier this year, “a strong commitment from organizational leaders to workplace mental health produces stronger programs, a healthier culture, and better results — for both employees and the organization itself.”

Organizational leadership can improve the re-onboarding process by creating psychologically safe workplaces where employees can readjust to new workplace dynamics. Practical steps include fostering workplaces where workers feel conformable being their authentic selves and creating environments where employees feel confident sharing their mental health challenges without facing stigma or negative consequences.

There can be no “back to normal” that disregards employee mental health. Employers have an opportunity to step up to the challenge by prioritizing workplace mental health to help ensure the next normal works for all employees.