As we head back to the office, companies must put their staff's mental health first
A view from Amy Matthews

As we head back to the office, companies must put their staff's mental health first

Reacclimatising to being in the office is going to be a matter of small steps.

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and the lessening of lockdown restrictions are putting workplaces in the spotlight when it comes to mental health. Specifically, how are we all going to react and behave when working from home is no longer the only option?

It's important to remember that reacclimatising to being in the office is going to be a matter of small steps. It might be uncomfortable or even overwhelming for some to return, so, for example, we’re considering a reorientation day just so people can do something as simple as relearn their commute.

For many, it will be a case of tempering their expectations. That first day back might not be everything they expect it to be, no matter how much you enjoy seeing your colleagues face to face again. Many will still feel nervous or anxious and some might even be surprised by their own reaction. It’s vital that we respect boundaries and give everyone the freedom to develop their own path.

OMG Minds, OMG UK’s cross-agency group focused on mental fitness and wellbeing, which I co-chair with Louise Christacopoulos of OMD, is bringing in a psychologist this week to talk with colleagues and help them understand what works best when it comes to their working patterns in the future. 

As Sean Betts, chief product and technology officer of OMG UK, notes, “I created OMG Minds because I’ve had to deal personally with issues around work/life balance and mental health, and, as we return to the office, a lot of people are going to face similar challenges. 

“The structure I have put in place in my own life to protect my wellbeing has made me a better colleague and leader, more able to talk openly about mental health. I wanted to establish a group that could help support others do the same.”

New ways of working

A lot of agencies will be analysing and working to overcome similar challenges, not least how to manage a future where WFH is a common occurrence and not everyone is in the office every day. At least we now know the technology to support it works (most of the time).

Those with external-facing roles, working with clients and media owners for example, will find they need to develop new, effective ways of working with those partners that are built around purpose, outcomes and keeping everyone mentally healthy. Time together will be more meaningful and, at least in the short term, we’ll no doubt see meetings and reviews becoming even more planned and structured. But in the end, this will breed better relationships.  

There’s also a danger that people will forget that Zoom and Teams have actually worked well. We may be suffering from Zoom fatigue, but video calls have enabled business to continue over the past 14 months. 

Meetings with half the team at the office and half WFH can work, because we know they can. The main challenge for those at the conference table will be relearning body language and the like after 14 months of conditioning during which they saw only the other person’s head.

More empathy – and that’s great

Another thing video calls have done is given us unprecedented insight into our co-workers’ and clients’ personal lives. Seeing them more informally, fending off their hungry cat or curious toddler, has deepened our relationships and made us more empathetic.

That is great news, and something we’ll have to work to maintain as restrictions start to lift. Being more understanding will help agencies facilitate the new ways of working, especially while we all reacclimatise – so if a media planner reaches lunchtime after a morning at the office and wants to spend the rest of the day working from home, that should be supported. 

Empathy is the core tenet behind developing a successful flexible working structure.

For example, we’ve been looking into areas such as "hour creep", to reset the expectations around working hours and out-of-hours communications. We’ve established HEALTHY Hearts, a set of guidelines that everyone in the agency signed up to in order to protect our work/life balance. 

We’re also examining how people want to be contacted, because video calls aren’t always the right choice and involve a higher cognitive load – as research from Stanford University has highlighted.

It’s clear that allowing every individual to plot their own route back to the office and avoid creating an "us and them" mentality will be crucial. A lot of the socialisation and networking activities office workers took for granted, such as chatting with the person opposite, or joining your colleagues for a quick drink at the local after work, will exclude those people WFH. So, we will need to be mindful of creating activities that can incorporate both. 

It will be fascinating to see how agencies return to the office and accept the new realities. It will also be vital that they do so in a way that is inclusive, empathetic and beneficial to their workers’ mental health.

Amy Matthews is head of client experience at Hearts & Science and co-chair of OMG Minds

Photo: Peter Cade/Getty Images