Return to work anxiety – how can businesses bring staff back safely?

After more than a year of remote work, employees are now being forced to consider the prospect of the return to the office. For many, this will be a huge relief, ending months of isolation and solely digital communication. For others, the return to the ‘old normal’ of office work will bring significant amounts of anxiety.

It could be a fear of catching COVID, concerns around productivity and performance, or simply worry around change. How businesses mitigate such challenges for their employees will impact the success of their post-pandemic strategies.

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Take an emotional reading

The first problem businesses face is that they simply don’t know what employees have been through. Whether homes chooling, family tragedy or extended isolation, every individual is different, and businesses must first take the time to understand their staff’s experiences.

According to ONS figures from May 2020, one in five people who reported high levels of anxiety also felt that their work had been affected due to the difficulties of working from home. 

Although the return to the office may help ease the burdens of cramped living conditions and isolation, it’s by no means a panacea for the myriad challenges that some employees will have faced.

Businesses should provide anonymous forums for employees to submit and discuss any concerns they may have around the return to the office, including gathering specific feedback where possible to address individual issues. This may be especially helpful for junior members of staff, or those who have joined remotely and have never met their colleagues or managers in person.

Whilst we always want to be positive in the workplace, taking an emotional barometer reading can help ensure that the appropriate support and acknowledgements are there for those who have struggled. 


Focus on mental health

Our emotional state is intrinsically linked to mental wellbeing, and this is a growing area of focus for companies across all sectors. With one in six workers estimated to be experiencing mental health issues at any one time, it’s vital that businesses step up and support staff wellbeing. This is especially important during periods of organisational change, as we know that even positive and hoped for changes can cause anxiety after workers have adjusted to full time remote work.

Demonstrating a clear and deliberate focus to prioritise the mental wellbeing of staff will provide considerable reassurance as people return to the office, especially if this is combined with tangible benefits including optional counselling, wellbeing sessions, and tailored coaching. 

Businesses should start this wellbeing focus by reviewing the tasks and demands they set for their staff. Many businesses saw productivity increases with people working from home and accordingly, they should accommodate a drop-off with the return to the office. Similarly, the first couple of months after any significant change should be viewed as ‘re-onboarding’ and allowances should be made (and communicated) for this adjustment period. 

Focusing on mental health will also help to prevent future cases of burnout, and can allow employees to develop mental resilience and tools to protect them from any subsequent challenges. Regular check-ins as well as a good understanding and communication around lower expectations will help staff navigate this period of change.


Invest in people

During periods of disruption, training and development are often the first things to be deprioritised. But as the recovery from the past year of disruption takes hold, the reverse should be true. In addition, threats to our mental wellbeing impact our ability to learn and will have affected the efficacy of certain types of learning and development - both positively and negatively.

For instance, lockdown has prevented the usual in-person courses and training sessions that have historically formed a large part of professional development. Meanwhile, the past year has proved that L&D can be delivered remotely.

Accordingly, companies should be utilising digital technologies to ensure they are able to continue both professional development and employee wellbeing provision whether employees are in the office, working remotely or a combination of the two.

Maintaining and increasing investment in L&D opportunities, both digital and in-person once possible, gives businesses a great chance to get people looking forward to returning to the office. Demonstrating a tangible long-term commitment to supporting employee progression is vital for building psychological safety within your workforce. 


Tailored solutions are a must

Underpinning all of the above is the understanding that no two employees are the same. Businesses must strive wherever possible to personalise and tailor strategies to meet individual needs and challenges. Digital solutions can help with this, along with choosing programmes that allow employees to set their own goals and benchmarks for progress, such as digital coaching and wellness initiatives. 

Much of our fear of change stems from anxieties around the loss of control, so by putting progress and choice back into the hands of the individual, managers can help staff to feel more comfortable and able to cope. 

Although there are many challenges for businesses to face in the coming year, with the proper support and planning the return to the office can be one less aspect for staff and leaders alike to worry about. 


Rosie Evans is principal behavioural scientist at CoachHub