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A psychotherapist explains: How to cope with the challenges of returning to work.

Returning to work

As the government’s furlough scheme comes to an end many businesses are looking at their staff returning to work in the forthcoming months. This is at a time when anxiety remains high about a second wave of infection and we’re seeing reports of rising infection rates across the globe.

It is vital that employers support the emotional wellbeing of their staff post-pandemic and employees and employers alike must be aware that this is for the long run and long-term strategies are needed. There are many questions for HR managers to answer during this time in regard to working conditions, phased return and reasonable adaptations for staff returning who may have been ill, those who have suffered a bereavement of a loved one to the pandemic or are experiencing mental health issues as a result of the crisis. Many workers will be extremely anxious about being in the workplace or travelling there. Organisations must continue their support for physical and mental health and its current thinking about remote and flexible working.

Economic insecurity is rife at the moment with many people not knowing if they have a job to return to and this anxiety is heightened by news reports of world economic collapse.

The government has signalled how seriously it takes all of this with work stimulus packages but fear of loss of work has significant negative mental health impacts, as well as actual unemployment.

?Our ability to manage the anxiety produced by the these multiple uncertainties is compounded by the experience of having been through the first lockdown of the pandemic,” says psychotherapist Noel McDermott.

“We are usually able to deal with a specific crisis that is time limited when we have a period of time to recuperate emotionally and psychologically, but this is not what we are faced with. We are faced with a situation in which there is no time to reflect and recover but we are straight into the next level of the crisis with a potential for this to go on for some time. Each new phase of the pandemic crisis wears us down psychologically, challenging our resilience and ability to bounce back.

Productivity in the workplace challenged

This has multiple impacts in terms of work, as we are likely to be less productive than prior to the pandemic with a greater set of psychological support needs. Mental ill health needs were the most common reason for work absence prior to the pandemic, with depression and anxiety accounting for over half of all days lost to sickness in 2018/19*. These needs have increased during the pandemic and are not abating post lockdown. Over 90%** of those who go absent for mental health reasons from work do no return so this could see very serious impacts on individuals and workplaces.

At work treatment models for mental illness

Given how stretched mental health services are, employers and employees alike need to take a radically different approach to workplace mental health post lockdown. Workplaces need to become adept in at work treatment models for mental illness treatment to be able to retain staff and ensure their own economic viability.

The pool of those with mental health needs has grown very significantly during the pandemic as has the severity of those needs.

Here, psychotherapist Noel McDermott provides tips for workers and business on how to cope with some of the challenges of returning to work.

Top tips for those employees returning to work:

  • Accept these are challenging times and change your lifestyle accordingly.
  • Adopt mentally wealthy approaches to life by ensuring core health strategies in place – good sleep hygiene, eating healthily, exercise, strong support networks, giving up or reducing almost to zero alcohol.
  • Understanding signs of emotional struggle and when to ask for help: bad sleep patterns, appetite changes, losing interest in activities and friends, losing temper a lot, not being able to stop worrying, developing a sense of dread about life or the future, excessive tiredness, increased drinking, relationship struggles.
  • Be aware this is for the long run, this isn’t over quickly, long term strategies are needed.

How to cope with feelings of increased anxiety

  • Take a deep breath and practice having faith in the future, tell yourself it will all be ok in the end and if it’s not ok at the moment it’s not the end. Telling yourself positive internal stories reduces stress significantly.
  • Helping others helps ourselves. Make time in your day whether on the way to or from work or in the workplace to do something kind/helpful for someone else.
  • Take a challenging situation and find deeper meaning from it; moving into the bigger picture to explain our challenges to ourselves as purposeful reduces fear and depression.
  • Make attachments to beliefs and ideas that express something more transpersonal, whether that is traditional spiritual or religious beliefs or believing in the power of love or nature is not important but having a sense that something bigger is at play is helpful in developing a growth mindset.
  • Put the oxygen mask on yourself (not just the face mask) as if you are not meeting your own needs you will not meet any other needs. These basic needs are self-care, regular exercise, sleep/rest, hydration, social and emotional support.

How businesses can support employee wellbeing

  • Develop a pandemic mental health return to work curriculum.
  • Use this opportunity to re-evaluate in house mental health services.
  • Create a culture of openness around mental health problems.
  • Develop asset based mental health approaches to retain staff.

Noel McDermott is a psychotherapist with over 25 years” experience in health, social care, and education. He is the founder and CEO of three organisations, Psychotherapy and Consultancy Ltd, Sober Help Ltd and Mental Health Works Ltd. Noel’s company offer at-home mental health care and will source, identify and co-ordinate personalised care teams for the individual. They have recently launched a range of online therapy resources in order to help clients access help without leaving home.


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