As workplaces reopen, occupational health practitioners need to be proactive in encouraging best practice and new thinking,around areas such as workplace socialising, catering and food options, argues Liz Forte.
Mental health in the workplace is, rightly, gaining greater attention. In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially recognised burnout as an occupational phenomenon. Since then, workers have faced an array of new or magnified impacts on their mental health – from juggling the responsibilities of an altered work/life balance, to worries about job security and additional financial strain.
In fact, Mental Health UK, which has recently partnered with us at catering company Eurest and facilities management firm 14forty, found in March that 46% of UK workers feel “more prone to extreme levels of stress” than they did one year before.
Concerningly, one in five said they felt “unable to manage stress and pressure in the workplace.” The strain appears to be taking its toll disproportionately on different demographics, as women and young people reported feeling more prone to extreme stress and pressure at work.
The gradual return to physical workplaces we hope and expect to see over the coming months (even if the spread of the Delta variant of Covid-19 is now causing problems) can be embraced as an opportunity to tackle mental health problems such as burnout, stress and anxiety that have been directly or indirectly brought on by work.
Working from home has brought some benefits for some people, but has also disrupted normal business hours and work/life balance while reducing our levels of human contact. Many have faced working extra hours – up to two hours of extra overtime per day in the UK – with a double burden of increased care responsibilities for children and relatives.
The return to work, then, might be welcomed by stressed employees looking to restore some normality to their lives. However, with pre-pandemic data showing that sickness absence rates caused by mental health problems more than doubled in the past decade, and the new stressors of the pandemic remaining a reality, it is clear that a simple return to business as usual will not give employees the mental health boost they need – and deserve.
Addressing return-to-work anxieties
It is completely normal to experience anxiety due to factors like uncertainty, change and worrying media coverage. Some psychologists have even discussed the phenomenon of so-called ‘Covid-19 anxiety syndrome’, with research indicating that disaster-level events can precipitate post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression.
Interestingly, the UK’s rates of sickness absence dropped to 1.8% in 2020 – the lowest they have ever been since records began in 1995. This was likely a symptom of the ‘always on’ culture that the shift to working from home has created – so employers were more likely to struggle through illness and keep working rather than taking time off and focusing on getting better. This was especially the case as many employees faced increased pressures to meet performance targets.
Despite the downsides of working from home, many people are likely to have adapted and experienced some of its benefits, such as increased personal time in lieu of the commute, and may feel anxious about how they will cope when they return to their workplace and its daily routines. It’s crucial that these anxieties are taken seriously, with opportunities created for people to ease back in.
For supporting office workers, it is particularly important to embrace the hybrid office. The message therefore for occupational health practitioners is to see 2021 as an opportunity to work with employers to help them reimagine the office as a cultural and social space – a ‘home away from home’, complete with inviting spaces and opportunities to be social throughout the working day. Hybrid working offers huge potential to inspire colleagues to work together, reconnect and spark creativity, allowing employees to ‘settle in.’
The message for occupational health practitioners is to see 2021 as an opportunity to work with employers to help them reimagine the office as a cultural and social space – a ‘home away from home’, complete with inviting spaces and opportunities to be social throughout the working day.”
For every workplace, it’s vital to remember that anxieties around hygiene may still be present, even if employees are vaccinated – and this will be an area that, naturally, occupational health will be expected to be leading on and providing clarity and direction.
This will need to include clearly communicating cleaning, ventilation and infection control protocols, and ensuring the organisation is up to speed on the latest guidelines. Having visible cleaning teams, rather than them visiting the building out-of-hours, will help employees feel at ease. Good facilities management may include monitoring the flow of people through buildings, and ensuring an abundance of break-out spaces to avoid congestion.
The importance of socialising and collaborating
Virtual meetings have accounted for much of our social contact. Yet ‘Zoom fatigue’ is a common problem for employees, and there are a variety of reasons for this. According to research from Stanford University, there are four top reasons why video conferencing takes a mental toll:
1) Excessive close-up eye contact. Virtual meetings cause unnatural levels of eye contact, and often faces appear larger they would be in normal in-person conversation. In an ordinary meeting, we alternate between looking at the person speaking, glancing away, for instance at our cup of coffee, and taking notes. In a virtual meeting, a person listening receives the same nonverbal cues as a person talking – sustained eye contact. Our brains interpret these virtual situations as highly intense, as on a subconscious level they can mimic conflict (or even mating!)
2) Seeing your own face in virtual chats is fatiguing. Studies have shown that when we see our own reflection more often, we become more critical of ourselves. In virtual meetings we are shown our image in real time as we speak, think and make decisions – this is a stressful scenario, especially as some studies have indicated that looking in the mirror has negative consequences for mental health.
3) Our usual mobility is reduced. With such a narrowly set field of view, we are required to stay immobile. With research showing that we perform better cognitively when we move around, virtual calls may be stifling our abilities.
4) We face a higher cognitive load. In virtual chats, it’s much harder to send and receive nonverbal signals. We normally interpret people’s gestures subconsciously, however, in a virtual call we have to work harder – often exaggerating our gestures. We may also be more likely to misinterpret the gestures of others.
Again, through providing space and time for more natural collaboration, the hybrid office can be designed to meet the needs of fatigued employees.
We may be living with an element of virtual meetings in the workplace for some time to come, so be sure to identify opportunities for meetings to happen in person. Workspaces can also be designed to tackle this issue – for instance, an external keyboard positioned correctly could create a more natural sense of distance.
Meeting in casual settings, for instance workplace restaurants or over a cup of coffee, offers that natural sense of human connection we have all missed – as well as stimulating creativity and collaboration. Providing comfortable and inspiring spaces, perhaps making use of space created by reduced occupancy, will help give employees a valuable boost.
When virtual meetings are unavoidable, ensure that employees are encouraged to take regular breaks to help them tackle the fatigue involved. Remember that ‘always on’ culture and be vocal in supporting taking some time away from the desk.
Using nutrition to boost wellbeing
Covid-19 has had a huge impact on the way we eat, and there’s a clear link to our mental health. The British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) found that 27% of people ate less healthily in lockdown, while 22% ate more healthily. Among those who ate less well, 48% said they did not feel motivated enough to eat healthy food. While 63% attributed their choices to boredom, 45% said it was because of stress, anxiety and tiredness.
Though there is a strong and complex relationship between food and mood, taking control of what we eat is not always easy. Motivation really matters.
That’s where businesses can support employees to rebuild healthy habits (and it should never be about shaming people with calorie counting!) Psychology teaches us that much of what we do is subconscious.
‘Quick decisions’ or ‘auto-responses’ shape our lives, driving our behaviours day-in and day-out, without conscious consideration – so workplace restaurants have a key role to play in making healthier choices more accessible.
The focus in this context therefore should be on encouraging employers to be offering choices that make people feel good, whether that’s through adding more fibre to satisfy appetites (think tasty seasonal veg or hearty wholegrains) or supercharging nutrient absorption through smart food combinations.
For instance, combining different amino acids by adding a variety of beans and pulses will improve protein bioavailability, while including fruits like sultanas in savoury dishes means iron and Vitamin C can work together.
Eating together has significant proven psychological, social and biological benefits too, so again, making good use of space within the workplace is a key way of boosting wellbeing.
A survey commissioned by Compass Group (the company that owns Eurest) found that having access to a staff restaurant was cited as the third most important non-financial benefit to employees, only behind health insurance and flexible hours.
It’s easy to see why these facilities are preferable in a post-covid work environment – rather than employees finding their meals and snacks on the high street, where they may eat alone or feel stressed by walking on a crowded pavement, they can use ‘click and collect’ apps to safely and easily book their meal and seat.
Employees can enjoy socialising with their colleagues in a space they trust to be Covid-secure, as salad bars and buffets have been replaced (for now) with pre-portioned food and more grab-and-go options. Covid-secure food preparation and service are in place and restaurants have been re-designed to accommodate one-way systems.
Employees can enjoy socialising with their colleagues in a space they trust to be Covid-secure, as salad bars and buffets have been replaced (for now) with pre-portioned food and more grab-and-go options.”
A final word on wellbeing
Ultimately, though we are all eager to welcome employees back into the workplace, we must think carefully about the stresses and anxieties faced by the workforce, paying attention to individuals in different demographics.
Providing flexible ways of working, comfortable spaces and easy access to proper nutrition will fuel employees, providing nudges toward improved wellbeing without being overly paternalist.
Alongside this proactive approach, Mental Health UK reminds us of the vital importance of destigmatising mental health in the workplace.
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‘Work-life balance in a pandemic: a public health issue we cannot ignore’, The Conversation, February 2021,
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‘COVID-19 anxiety syndrome: A pandemic phenomenon?’, Medical News Today, May 2021, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/covid-19-anxiety-syndrome-a-pandemic-phenomenon
‘Sickness absence in the UK labour market: 2020’, Office for National Statistics, March 2021, https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/labourproductivity/articles/sicknessabsenceinthelabourmarket/2020
‘The reason Zoom calls drain your energy’, BBC Remote Control, April 2020, https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200421-why-zoom-video-chats-are-so-exhausting
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‘Many children feel healthier and are more active since the return to school, research finds’, British Nutrition Foundation, September 2020, https://www.nutrition.org.uk/press-office/pressreleases/hew20.html
‘Food and mood’, Mind, https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/food-and-mood/about-food-and-mood/