The mental health of your workers will likely have been affected in various ways as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Given this situation, what steps should you take to ensure a safe return to the office?

Physical health is not the only concern

A lot of focus of employers has been, understandably, on ensuring that the workplace is as safe as possible to prevent the spread of COVID-19 when staff return. Those steps include ensuring compliance with physical distancing requirements and an increase of cleaning and hygiene practices.

But equally important is to check whether your workers have made it 'safely' through the pandemic such that when they return to the workplace, they are mentally in a position to do so.

The challenges of isolation, remote work, carer's responsibilities (including home schooling) and a range of other pandemic-related issues will likely have had a significant impact on your staff's mental health. A lot of organisations will have put in place systems to manage these issues during the pandemic. These steps would have included regular checking in with staff, running sessions on how to manage the stress and, to the extent possible, health and well-being programs being conducted virtually.

However, as your staff begin to return to 'business as usual', your organisation should consider how it will go about assessing everyone's mental capacity to transition safely back into the working environment. For many, a return to the workplace will be a positive mental boost, while for others it may pose some additional challenges.

Duty of care to assess risks to mental health

A PCBU has a duty of care to ensure the safety and well-being of its workers. As such, managers and HR professionals will need to be prepared to have conversations with teams to 'check-in' on how they can best tailor the return to work for their staff. It will not be a 'one-size' fits all. And in many cases, it will likely require some further flexibility around hours of work and periods of time off if carer's responsibilities are ongoing.

It is also important for supervisors to understand their legal obligations when managing workers who have mental health issues, whether caused or exacerbated by the pandemic.

When managing those workers, supervisors should ensure they:

  • consider whether reasonable adjustments are required to enable a worker with mental health issues to perform their role in accordance with an employer's obligations under discrimination legislation
  • are mindful of their health and safety obligations to take reasonably practicable steps to provide a safe and healthy workplace.

This publication does not deal with every important topic or change in law and is not intended to be relied upon as a substitute for legal or other advice that may be relevant to the reader's specific circumstances. If you have found this publication of interest and would like to know more or wish to obtain legal advice relevant to your circumstances please contact one of the named individuals listed.