Mental Health’s Return to Work

Mental Health’s Return to Work

By Dr. Merle Riepe

SOLVE President


We are one year removed from the onset of the global pandemic. Over the last year, when I began writing these letters, wellness has been a dominant theme. So, it will not surprise you that I’m doubling down in 2021.


Although there is light at the end of the tunnel, a new stressor is emerging. Numerous organizations are making plans to bring employees back to the office. For many employees, the benefits of socialization, a clear distinction in work environment, and the feeling of office nostalgia will be much welcomed. For others, the notion of returning creates anxiety around adherence to mask and physical distancing protocols, fear of a rogue COVID variant, sadness they are losing flexibility (or must wear pants again). We each experienced the pandemic uniquely; similarly, everyone will experience a return to the office uniquely.


Understanding individual needs is at the core of effective leadership and 2021 is a critical inflection point for all leaders and businesses. As you consider your organization’s return to work plan, I ask you to acknowledge your employees’ mental and emotional needs. It will be a recognizable demonstration of the value you hold for each of them. Here are some suggestions to consider that may help support that end:

  1. Reframe mental health as “groovy,” “cool,” and/or “lit.” Negative stigmatizations are pervasive in mental health. An employee who acts on a desire to feel less anxious or address their depressive thoughts should be recognized and revered in the same manner (and in the method they desire) as employees who lose weight or quit smoking. We have all struggled to ask for help, and it should be simple to recognize the courage it often takes.


  1. Talk about mental health a lot. One thing my experience has taught me is effective communication is about repetition, repetition, repetition. Communicating about mental health resources and varying needs based on internal and/or external events helps normalize the lexicon, which enhances dialogue and boosts psychological safety. Stronger communication + increased trust = higher employee performance, engagement, and retention.


  1. Build skills. Provide leaders with access to psychologists via executive coaching and/or workshops so they learn the tools and techniques we use in our practice. Many of the tools (empathetic listening, positive reframing, vulnerability) do not require a doctorate and will help leaders effectively address feelings of stress within themselves and others. Offer workshops that speak to the stress of the transition and provide employees with effective coping strategies to minimize its impact. This skill development will be critical to maintaining productivity in 2021.


SOLVE’s Senior Strategist of Learning & Development, Deb Manning, PhD, has an incredibly impactful workshop, which provides practical tools to support the transition. If you are interested in learning more, please email


These programs do not necessarily require additional investment. To support new programs, organizations are limiting investments in health fairs, free healthy food for employees, and gym membership reimbursements. Restrictions created from the pandemic, have made these programs less attractive to employees and/or more difficult to implement safely.


I wish you great success as you embark into new territory and remember to be kind to yourself as well.