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How to talk about your mental health when back in the office

A group of three young women and two men of different ethnicities are in a business meeting in a modern day office. A bald man is talking to the group while there are laptops and documents on the table.
As we gradually return to normal, many people are heading back to offices after more than a year of working from home. But as our lives begin to look more like they did before coronavirus, it may well be difficult to adjust. Photo: Getty

After living through a pandemic, it is safe to say that many of us are in a different place mentally than pre-Covid. Lockdowns, isolation, job insecurity, illness and general anxiety have all taken their toll on our mental health, leaving us with additional challenges to navigate as restrictions are lifted.

As we gradually return to normal, many people are heading back to offices after more than a year of working from home. But as our lives begin to look more like they did before coronavirus, it may well be difficult to adjust.

“Returning to work will be different for everyone, some businesses may encourage employees to return together as soon as allowed, perhaps in June,” says Kirsty Lilley, mental health expert at the wellbeing charity CABA.

“Some are already returning in small groups or as individuals. In whatever way you are encouraged to return it’s important to be honest and open with our workplaces about the issues we’re dealing with or have had to deal with. And how we feel.”

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Seeking help is often the first step towards getting and staying well, but talking about a mental health problem isn't always easy. It's normal to feel nervous about speaking about your health, particularly at work. However, there are a few steps you can take to make this process as easy and as anxiety-free as possible.

Plan what you’re going to say

Before speaking to your manager or employer, writing down a few notes beforehand can help you remember what you want to say. When we’re stressed or nervous, it’s easy to forget things and to want to leave the room as quickly as possible - so having notes to hand will help you stick to your plan.

“Conversations about your mental health may feel daunting, but when you decide to speak up about the issues you’re facing, have a think about exactly what it is you need to articulate,” says Lilley.

“If it helps, write it down and go into your conversation with an outline of what you want to cover. There’s no pressure to get it all out in one go. If you need to have multiple conversations to cover all the necessary ground, then do it. Take the time you need and consider sharing only what is relevant or important to the situation.”

Think about who you want to speak to

Speak to whoever you feel most comfortable with, wherever you feel most comfortable. It might help to book a meeting room so you can have some privacy, but give your manager a heads up beforehand so they can schedule time to speak to you without interruption.

“If you feel uncomfortable talking to your line manager about your mental health, don’t feel like you have to share this with them initially,” Lilley says. “Find someone in your workplace who you trust and who is going to be able to support you in the ways you need.

“It may be helpful that they can support you to find ways to communicate your concerns with your line manager in a way that you are comfortable with. It is helpful and ultimately beneficial to you that your line manager is aware of your situation to ensure you’re fully supported and not overwhelmed. Ultimately, it’s about employees and employers working together to find a helpful and mutually convenient way forward through the changes ahead.”

Check if you have Mental Health First Aiders

Some companies train staff members to be “Mental Health First Aiders” via a programme of online courses run by Mental Health First Aid England. Although they can’t treat mental health problems, they are trained to listen and signpost employees so they can access help and support.

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You don’t need to have a formal conversation in a meeting room with a Mental Health First Aider. You can get out of the office, go for a walk and grab a coffee together, to take away that daunting feeling of having a one-to-one across a desk.

Remember mental health problems are common

At least one in six workers experience common mental health problems, including anxiety and depression. According to the charity Mind, work is the biggest cause of stress in people's lives, more so than debt or financial problems.

“No matter how you’re feeling, it’s valid and it is understandable in the light of recent times to feel the way you do,” says Lilley. “Feeling stressed, anxious or depressed is an understandable response to the situations many of us have faced throughout these challenging times. Acknowledging how you feel is the first step in getting the help and support you need.

“Sharing any of the issues you’re having to juggle won’t make you look weak, and they certainly won’t make you a burden. Although it can make us feel vulnerable to open up it’s actually an act of great courage. Your company may have policies and guidelines to support you for a reason. As a society we are now recognising the intrinsic link between good mental health and the workplace so it’s in everyone’s best interest to work together.”

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