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THE NEW NORMAL - The New Rules of Work - Bullied back into the office? Why managers need to avoid putting pressure on staff to return

Posted 19th January 2021 • Written by David Cox on •

It is crucial for employers to make sure staff feel that their voices are being heard.
It can be counterproductive for businesses to add to their employees’ anxieties during the Covid pandemic. Here’s how companies can put their employees’ mental health first.

Jill was on her way back from a funeral in September, when the message from her line manager arrived in her inbox. It explained that the insurance company she works for had decided that staff needed to begin returning to the office to help keep the business functioning.

“It was very uncomfortable as I have two children with underlying health conditions,” she says. “If they got sick, it could be deadly, but my manager was adamant that I needed to return.” 

With the Covid-19 pandemic set to stretch into 2021, managers can perhaps be forgiven for growing impatient with the disruption posed by remote working. In a bid to get back to a sense of normality, it can be all too easy to unwittingly pressure staff to return to the office, regardless of government advice for people to work from home where possible.

Well-meaning encouragement can be misinterpreted by anxious employees as overt pressure. And that pressure can spread through different departments and teams, quickly evolving into a new kind of workplace bullying. There have been a spate of incidents in the UK in which bosses have been accused of bullying staff to return to the office. 

This highlights the importance of properly supporting employees’ psychological safety as well as their physical safety. “Employers should take on any Covid related queries and try to support their employees as much as possible,” says psychiatrist Sarmila Sinha. “Don’t play down the risk of the Covid pandemic, and make the safety of the employee a priority.” 

Still, well-meaning actions can be felt as pressure, intimidation, and shaming. While management emails may say no one should feel under pressure to return to the office, this message is effectively contradicted by remarks made during video call meetings – or by managers’ social media posts that applaud those who “bravely” come into HQ.

Managers may even reward those who come into the office with one-to-one lunches or meetings that basically function as career discussions, while neglecting to hold video-call equivalents for those working remotely. 

Mental health professionals point out that this subtle bullying can be counterproductive from a business perspective, as well as being a failure of corporate responsibility. Many workers are already struggling under the economic pressures of the pandemic, so when managers trigger even more anxiety, remote employees can find it harder to focus – thus undermining the practice of remote working and setting off a vicious cycle. Research has long shown there are strong business reasons for employers to take the mental wellbeing of their staff into account, given that healthy employees are more engaged, more productive, and have much lower rates of sickness absence. 

Employers need to have a healthy dialogue with their staff about working practices in the short to medium term, taking into account each employee’s home circumstances. Some might be living with people in at-risk groups. Others may be struggling with isolation and may actually welcome the opportunity to return to the office. 

“As an employer, it’s important not to make assumptions about how staff feel about working remotely or returning to their workplace, and remember everyone’s situation is different,” says Faye McGuinness, head of workplace wellbeing programmes at the mental health charity, Mind. “Offer phased returns, or the option of working from home more regularly. You may have to consider options that make journeys into work safer, such as adjustments to working hours. Regularly surveying staff and asking for anonymous feedback is a great way to identify themes and concerns.” 

McGuinness says it is crucial for employers to make sure staff feel that their voices are being heard regarding any plans to reopen the workspace. Instead of directly asking them whether they want to be in the office or not, a more empathetic approach is to task questions such as: “Do you feel like you need to stay at home in order to be safe right now?” or “Do you feel like you are getting what you need from us in order to do your job?” 

Software company ServiceNow offers a Safe Workplace Suite of applications to help companies plan a safe return to the office. This includes an Employee Readiness Survey, which helps gauge which staff are ready to go back to their workplace by taking account of their views and assessing their physical and mental health. 

But holding responsible conversations around workplace location is just one aspect of helping employees with their emotional and psychological wellbeing, particularly as new lockdown mandates are put into place.

As a guide for both business leaders and employees, Mind recommends these five ways to wellbeing – connect, be active, take notice, keep learning, and give. Each encompasses evidence-based ways for thinking about mental health both inside and outside of work.

Over the past seven months, ServiceNow has implemented similar mental wellness strategies in a remote working environment. “We feel that attending to our employee wellbeing and mental health is more important now than ever,” says Laurent Briant, director of government programmes for ServiceNow’s NextGen programme. “This is a marathon and not a sprint.” Briant says that ServiceNow pays particular attention to the risk of employee burnout, using automated reminders to encourage employees to take regular breaks during the working day and emphasising the need for employees to use their annual leave and prioritise self-care.

Sinha agrees on the importance of work-life balance when working from home. “Often employees working remotely feel obliged to work without taking their annual leave or asking for a day off,” she says. “Senior managers and supervisors can offer support to address burnout by reviewing employees’ working hours and ensuring staff are taking breaks while remotely working.” 

ServiceNow has rolled out a range of programmes aimed at promoting good mental health, including virtual socials to help people feel connected to online workshops offering practical guidance for parents. Central to all this is an understanding that every person’s working environment is different, and that flexibility – both in working hours and when employees are able to be available – is crucial to avoiding burnout and managing the stresses of daily life. 

One last, critical key to successfully address mental health issues in the workplace is to identify and take responsibility for the source of the problem. “The biggest problem we have regarding mental health issues in the workplace is our tendency to think of these conditions as something to do with the individual,” says James Wallace, an academic at Swansea University who researches mental health in the workplace. “Rather than thinking about why they might have these experiences, for example because they’re overworked or they have a poor relationship with their boss.” 

While offering counselling services to employees is a start, Wallace encourages business leaders to look more deeply within the company culture to identify the root cause. “Unless employers are willing to accept that they have a responsibility for the working conditions of employees and make efforts to try to improve these conditions where necessary,” Wallace says, “then we are likely to continue to see employee burnout increase.” 

The ServiceNow Safe Workplace Suite offers tools for organisations to deliver the right digital experience for each phase of reopening. Including engaging with employees in advance, automating steps for returning, and providing a safe, employee‑ready working environment. Learn more at  

To donate to Mind and find out more about the great work they do, visit 

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