As COVID restrictions are being removed, many organizations are returning to the office. With the shift in how and where employees are working, there seems to be a heightened sense of anxiety about figuring out the new normal.

It’s safe to say that most people’s mental health has been tested over the past few years and that returning to the office brings new challenges and adjustments for all. After years of long hours on video conferencing platforms, little distinction between work and home life, and disheartening world events, many employees are feeling burned out and mentally drained. As we come back together, one of the new challenges that we face is that we have been conditioned to react negatively to cues that weren’t threatening before. For example, facemasks, someone coughing, people being in close physical proximity, and travel can all be triggering and threaten our sense of safety. With many people back in the office, it’s going to take time for people to remember that these triggers aren’t as threatening as they were at the height of the pandemic. Leaders need to be prepared that it may be a while before employees let their guard down again. As we get used to the new normal, there will be an adjustment period that may feel disorienting and cause stress to our teams.

For marginalized groups, the return to the workplace can be especially challenging. Those who experienced stress that was triggered by microaggressions or biases at work before the pandemic will be coming back to a vulnerable, potentially unsafe place in addition to dealing with all the mental stress that comes with returning to in-person work.

As we make this long-awaited transition, here are 3 ways your organizations can prioritize employees’ mental health:

1. Destigmatizing Mental Health

The number of workers who reported mental stress increased during the pandemic in 2022 jumped to 43% as compared to 38% in 2019. In the US and Canada, that number was higher: 57% of people reported workplace stress. To make employees return-to-work more manageable, it’s important to acknowledge that everyone’s mental health and well-being have been challenged. Here are a few ways your organization can help destigmatize mental health and promote caring for employees more holistically:

  • Including mental health support and resources in your organization’s wellness package
  • Providing days off when sensitive world events occur in order to provide extra support for those directly impacted
  • Providing well-being days off for mental recuperation once a month in order to make it easy for employees to participate fully on-the-job

2. Create Space for Marginalized Groups

For marginalized employees, a lack of feeling included may be an additional stressor when returning to in-person work. Neither biases nor microaggressions have gone away, and the thought of re-entering a workplace where marginalized employees may have to deal with these experiences again can add additional stress. After major events like social injustices, health inequities, and global conflict, the idea of inclusivity is top of mind for many, but it may not be felt or actualized in the day-to-day employee experience. For employees affected by this, going “back to normal” means feeling excluded and not feeling safe.

Organizations should not only be conscientious of these additional stressors, but they should also be intentional to ease these employees’ transitions. Ways to increase additional support include:

  • Creating or leveraging your existing Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) to help foster belonging and to give people a voice to offer recommendations on what would help them feel a sense of belonging as they return to the office
  • Creating or leveraging a mentorship program so that employees from marginalized groups can engage and get support from leaders, and ideally from leaders who are also a cultural match
  • Partnering with a mental health firm or bringing clinicians on-site who are a cultural match with your employees if additional support is needed

3. Provide Education to Empower Managers

On a team level, it’s every manager’s responsibility to support their team’s mental health and promote inclusion. However, these soft skills aren’t always talked about or taught, so managers must be provided with the proper education and training to assess when employees need additional support or when to intervene to reduce strained team dynamics. Here are some ways that managers can support their employees in this effort:

  • Finding educational opportunities to become more knowledgeable about mental health in the workplace
  • Articulating values and behavioral expectations for inclusion with your team
  • Modeling this behavior and holding those accountable who do not engage in this behavior
  • Look for nonverbal cues from your BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color), women, LGBTQIA, and other marginalized groups to determine if these individual contributors are feeling included and safe at work — are they disengaged or withdrawn from discussions? Is this behavior atypical for this employee?

To see a change in the way mental health affects us at work, mental health itself must be prioritized at every level of the organization: leaders, managers, and individual contributors. As we all look at the return to in-person work and at what stressors each person may be facing, we must integrate mental health wellness into the return-to-work strategy. The post-pandemic world calls for more acuity around mental health and how to manage and support it in the workplace. As we work together to make this a priority, we are reminded that Business is Human®.