The Anxious Emplyee and Returning to Work
“Oh my god, was the office always this stressful?”
“Why has my desk moved?”
“Why am I now hotdesking when I had my own desk before?”
“Why was I one of the few employees that were furloughed, what will my colleagues think of me?”
“Should I go and say hello to Sharon, even if we only usually speak at the Christmas party?”
“What’s the etiquette here?”
The back to work anxiety is real.
45% of workers said they felt anxious about returning to the workplace1 , and there’s a general sense of apprehension as workplaces move more towards hybrid working models.
Currently, we all now share a collective experience of having to adapt to new working situations, whether you’re still working remotely and expecting to return to a physical workplace in the future, or you’ve been doing a combination of remote and office work recently.
Though the term ‘unprecedented times’ has been used more than Uber Eats during lockdown, there’s certainly a sense of ‘what happens next?’ as we return to some sense of normality.
There’s a lot to contend with
In regular circumstances, a return to work after a prolonged absence of any kind can be stressful for a multitude of reasons, not limited to the new routine, unforeseen changes and a sense of anxiety around your day-to-day.
Now, there are a few more factors to consider when returning to the workplace:
- Worry over the risk of Covid-19
- Unease about being around larger groups/mixing
- Uncertainty about the changes in the workplace
- Anxiety about the response from colleagues who were furloughed or that worked through the pandemic whilst you were furloughed
- Confusion around safety measures
- Nervousness about doing your job again
These are all completely rational and common concerns for people returning to workplaces, and for those who may be more predisposed to feelings of anxiety, this can be heightened by the uncertainty of it all.
You didn’t think we were just going to list all of these anxiety-inducing questions and leave it at that, did you?
We’re not the rushed terms and conditions at the end of a radio advert, we promise!
Part of the paradox about returning to work is that, though we have the above anxieties that make us apprehensive about returning, we also know that we miss socialising and working alongside colleagues in person.
Something that is also high on the list of priorities for employees is work/life separation.
Look – starting off lockdown in elasticated trousers, tucked up in your bed, was a perfectly normal response to your regular schedule being turned upside down.
Ditching the maternity trousers (and the abundance of daily snacks that come with them) to return to the office might not sound too appealing at first, until you remember how hard it is to switch off.
For those living with children or disruptive housemates (if you don’t think there’s a disruptive person in the house, I’m sorry, but it might be you), going back to the office will come as a sweet relief to finally draw a line between work and personal life again.
There’s also less pressure to be continually ‘on’ for work, attached to emails and work-related correspondence, which is a win-win – being able to stop living at work should come as a relief for many!
So, where do you begin with helping an anxious employee return to work?
- First steps
You want to make sure that your employees can return to work without a heightened sense of anxiety, so what do you do first?
You make sure that they are in the know.
Informing employees about what returning to work will entail was actually shown to reduce feelings of anxiety, with 42% of employees feeling anxious about returning to work, compared to 62% when not informed prior to returning2 .
Sending information to employees around safety measures and additional details about workplace changes can reduce a sense of uncertainty.
This might include new handwashing facilities, face mask requirements or one-way systems.
- Making adjustments
The ‘new normal’ isn’t really normal at all.
After all, some employees may have been working in the office throughout the pandemic or in- between lockdowns, whereas others haven’t been in the workplace since March 2020.
This means that, if ever there was a time to change your working practices, it’s now.
Flexible working hours mean that employees can not only benefit from having more freedom over their working hours, but can also impact the ease of commuting, for example, as they can avoid the most congested times.
Additionally, a lot of employees may be completely overwhelmed at the thought of returning to a 5- day office week.
Allowing employees to adopt hybrid working means that they can slowly readjust to office working, without causing unnecessary stress, whether they choose to slowly return to a full office week or not.
If that means continuing to trust your employees and looking at output, rather than reverting to micro-management and any trust issues you have, then so be it.
- Accept change
McKinsey found that 20-25% of the workforce could work from home between 3 and 5 days a week without a loss of productivity.
This would represent 4-5x more remote work than prior to the pandemic, and shifts entire workforces into new territory.
This isn’t to say that every process can, or should, be done remotely – it’s simply an acknowledgement that the traditional workplace is undergoing change.
A survey of executives has found that, on average, they plan to reduce office space by up to 30%3 , so it’s unlikely that we’ll be back permanently to 9-5 in the office anytime soon.
Primarily, you want to make sure that employees feel comfortable and informed, which is why giving information on the new workplace is so valuable.
Anxiety around returning to the office is completely normal and expected, given the circumstances of the last year or so, so a little period of reintegration is necessary and useful for both employers and employees.
Changes to people’s working environment should also be acknowledged and considered.
Whilst the majority of people might be okay with hotdesking, there will be some employees that won’t be comfortable with change, and they should have psychologically safe ways to raise this with empathetic leads.
Let’s be honest, we already know that the ‘one size fits all’ approach definitely doesn’t fit all employees…we aren’t as flexible as those maternity pants after all!
If you’d like to find an Occupational Health provider, we can help – you can narrow your search down by provider or by service!
1, 2 https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/work/trends/goodwork/covid-impact#gref