Supporting employees with anxiety during COVID

Samantha Rigby, First Practice Management’s HR specialist, discusses how to deal with staff mental health issues in your practice

Anxiety is a feeling of nervousness, unease and restlessness caused by fear, worry and stress. Everyone will feel anxious every now and again – such as before an exam, when buying a house or going for a job interview – but, for most, these feelings will pass once the event is over. However, for someone suffering from anxiety, these feelings don’t go away and can start to severely impact everyday life.

The pandemic has dramatically increased the amount of anxiety in the UK workforce and with many employees now being asked to return to work, especially those that may have been working from home for the best part of the year, or even shielding, managers need to think about how they can best support these employees to positively return to their workplaces.

Prepare your practice

All practices should now be set up to be as COVID-safe as possible, with all the measures taken being understood and explained to staff members. It could, perhaps, be the perfect time to refresh your COVID risk assessment, or even carry out a new risk assessment specifically for a particular member of staff.  

Ensure that you have open dialogue with an anxious employee prior to their return; discuss with them what the practice has done already and whether there anything more that can be done, or any specific concerns the employee might have. What can the practice do to address these concerns?

Creating the right culture

The culture in your practice needs to be one of support; however, this isn’t done overnight. Do employees feel they can approach the management to discuss any issues they may be facing? The reality is that managers and leaders are likely to think of themselves as approachable, but it can take a huge amount of courage for an employee to approach their manager and talk to them about personal issues – especially anything relating to mental health. The mental health charity Mind have stated that one-in-five employees won’t approach their manager to talk about their mental health.

There are steps that practices can take to try and make that conversation as easy for employees as possible:

  • Have your managers received any training in how to support mental health in the workplace? Are you and your managers confident in speaking to someone about anxiety?
  • Ensure that the practice has a policy that mental health will be treated in the same way as physical heath.
  • Discussions about the employee’s wellbeing in their regular one-to-ones will help to normalise talking about mental health.
  • Be open-minded and flexible; what may help one employee may not help another, but employees knowing that they will be listened to, and supported, can make all the difference. Some examples might be allowing an employee to take their lunch in 20 minute slots throughout the day, offering extra feedback from a manager so that an employee knows they are on the right track, or agreeing to unpaid leave when they need an extra day off. It’s important for the manager to listen and make any adjustments that are reasonable and suitable for what a particular employee needs.

Looking for the signs

Anxiety is different for everyone but there are some more regular changes in behavior, and signs, that could help you identify a problem and try to open communication channels as early as possible:

  • is an employee interacting with their colleagues differently?
  • is their level of motivation and focus at work different?
  • are they struggling with their organisation, or finding it difficult to make decisions?
  • have you noticed any changes in their habits?

Initiating a conversation about an employee’s wellbeing, and asking how they are doing when you first notice some signs, can make things a lot easier for the employee, and open the door for when and if they are ready to talk.

It’s been a difficult year…

There has never been a year like this before in primary care. Every practice team has moved mountains, but it isn’t over yet. An increase in anxiety is a very real result of the pandemic and practices need to be ready and prepared to support their employees in feeling safe and secure at work.

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