Return to work: the mental health risks

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Over the past 18 months we have seen some major changes in the world of work, with staff and employers having to adapt to staff working from home, and then returning to workplaces following the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions.

These changes in the work environment have increased the chances of workers suffering from work-related stress and employers should be mindful of their obligations
in relation to their employees’ mental as well as physical health and safety.

Working from home can lead to increased isolation and stress among workers. However, a return to workplaces does not automatically alleviate those issues. Commuting to work and reintegration into the workplace can also lead to new stress, as people get used to navigating a ‘return to normal’ while the Covid-19 pandemic continues.

Charlotte O’Kane, senior associate Pinsent Masons LLP

This raises the question of how businesses should approach the issue of supporting their employees to ensure that returning to work does not put undue pressure on workers’ mental health.

In 2017, the UK government commissioned a review of mental health and employers. The result of that review was the Thriving at Work report which included a framework of actions which employers are recommended to implement. These include:

  • Produce, implement and communicate a mental health at work plan that promotes good mental health of all employees and outlines the support available for those who may need it
  • Develop mental health awareness among employees by making information, tools and support accessible
  • Encourage open conversations about mental health and the support available when employees are struggling, during the recruitment process and at regular intervals throughout employment; and offer appropriate workplace adjustments to employees who require them
  • Provide employees with good working conditions and ensure they have a healthy work-life balance and opportunities for development
  • Promote effective people management to ensure all employees have a regular conversation about their health and wellbeing with their line manager, supervisor or organisational leader; and train and support line managers and supervisors in effective management practices
  • Routinely monitor employee mental health and wellbeing by understanding available data, talking to employees, and understanding risk factors.

HSE has developed the Management Standards approach to help employers manage the causes of work-related stress. The Standards refer to six areas of work that can lead to stress if not properly managed:

  • Demands – this includes issues such as workload, work patterns and the work environment
  • Control – how much say the person has in the way they do their work
  • Support – this includes the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues
  • Relationships – this includes promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour
  • Role – whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that they do not have conflicting roles
  • Change – how organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated in the organisation.

In circumstances where workers will likely be under additional stress as a result of returning to the workplace following potentially long periods of working from home, it is even more important that employers have effective systems in place to monitor and manage their employees’ mental health, including the risk of work-related stress.

By implementing the Management Standards, or an equally effective model, employers will be able to demonstrate that they are taking steps to address their employees’ mental health. Stress and mental health are a key area of focus for HSE and if not managed appropriately could lead to an employer facing enforcement action.

Contact Charlotte O’Kane at:



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