Monkey Puzzle Blog

Returning to work after the Pandemic

Advice for leaders - managing return to work anxiety

The government has issued a ‘conditional plan’ to ease the lockdown which contains some guidance on returning people to work. People who cannot work from home should return to the workplace from Wednesday but avoid public transport. More detail is to be added but the call to return to work, for some sectors at least, has raised safety concerns.

However we end up returning to work, it’s already apparent that our organisations and workplaces will be very different from the ones we left behind just under two months ago. This reality - and the experiences employees have had during the lockdown - are already causing a lot of anxiety.

Perhaps the biggest issue is the most important of all - health. Employees must feel confident that they’ll be safe if they return. Will the new ‘Stay Alert’ slogan make us feel any less anxious? That’s a big ask given that we’ve all been told to stay at home these past few weeks.

Understanding, support and reassurance are needed

The practicalities of returning to work won’t matter if the psychological issues aren’t addressed - and there are likely to be many.

In this article we cover what we think the main ones will be - with tips for leaders and senior managers to understand and reassure.

Fear of coming back into contact with others

Our colleagues and those we travel to work with are now seen as a potential infection risk. It’s not just public transport - every interaction presents a risk and there will always be those who don’t follow social distancing guidelines. Indeed, how challenging will it be to operate offices with one way systems and desk screens? So, as much as you may want to return to normality, your people will thank you if do it as slowly and flexibly as you practically can.

As a leader, make it clear that you are putting their health and safety first at all times. For example, consider how you practically pace people back into work slowly. You might consider staff rotations or a phased plan whereby coming into work is optional for a set amount of time, followed by a gradual return to normal. You may have found that working from home has worked out better than you expected - could you continue that? If colleagues do need to travel, could you adjust hours so they could travel when commuter numbers are lighter?

To support you, work closely with health and safety and occupational health and communicate practical measures (distancing, what to do if feeling unwell etc) regularly.

Anxiety about issues that emerged while away

While some have rallied during lockdown, others will have found themselves facing situations they won’t have been prepared for. As always, social media is a power for good and bad. There’s been naming and shaming for not clapping on a Thursday, people posting pics of themselves flouting the rules and lots of unhelpful comparisons (it’s alright for you - this happened to me.. etc). Some who have been furloughed being resented by those who haven’t - and vice versa. Feelings of isolation and exclusion - some of which will inevitably be focused on work and the fear of missing out. People will be anxious about discussing and confronting these issues on their return to work.

Leadership must take care to use balanced language around groups of people that have been affected in all sorts of different ways. This is often done unintentionally but more than ever now, it’s essential that organisations take care to prepare their communication and make sure leaders do not come across as judgemental or seen as excluding some people. It could be useful to have a facilitated session to lay out the possible scenarios and how to communicate around each group. Prepare for some turbulence.

Fear about how things will feel now

For many, disbanding to work from home was a sudden and quite unexpected thing. It may have created some kind of collective trauma - people may not have fond memories of their last days in the office before lockdown. This will be affecting them unconsciously as they consider returning. There may also be a feeling that the ground may have shifted. What has happened to their role, did they perform well enough working from home, how did they get on with their line manager?

If it’s allowed and appropriate - encourage teams to meet up outside the office (online - or in a responsible socially distanced manner) before they return so that they get to debrief their experiences, reconnect and discuss their priorities before coming back into the office. Another approach is holding a company wide online conference to acknowledge different perspectives and include a leadership Q&A. It’s a good way for people to reconnect and feel re-engaged before they are physically back together.

Anxiety about home related issues

It stands to reason that our homes have been under pressure these past few weeks. Relationships may have strained or even ended, while children will have been separated from their friends and will have picked up on any tensions. On top of this while furloughing has been a lifeline for some, partners and family members may have lost their jobs. As such, the home may be under increased financial pressures which brings anxiety of its own. That’s bound to affect their work.

Research by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that anxiety levels were highest among an estimated 8.6 million people whose income fell, according to the weekly survey on the impact of Coronavirus. Measures of well-being were at their lowest levels since records began in 2011, the ONS said.

The first person an employee will turn to, if they feel able, is likely to be their line manager. That’s why we believe that line managers need to be able to display empathy with their teams and listen to their problems. If your organisation has an Employee Assistance Programme or access to Occupational Health advisers, encourage your people to talk or seek confidential help. You may also find the wellbeing guidance available from Mind of help.

Anxiety over possible redundancy

We have seen well known companies making thousands of people redundant these past few days. The aftershock and effect on your business may mean some very difficult decisions need to be taken. This is likely to be an anxious time, especially if the rumour mill is swirling.

Redundancy will feel like a crushing blow when they have been through a very challenging time. Be very mindful of how you communicate, continue to support them and treat their health and welfare as a priority. If you need to make redundancies, do you have the HR resources to manage this internally? If not, could you engage with an external HR consultant to give the advice you need?

The CIPD offer resources and information on many aspects of redundancy, including newly written guidance on COVID-19 and redundancy.

Communication tips for the leadership team

We started this article by referring to the changing nature of how COVID-19 is affecting the workplace and return to work issues. So, remember as a leadership team, it is OK not to have all the answers right now. Don’t feel the need to be perfect, give yourself space to take away unexpected questions and situations for consideration.

There’s a fine balance between being authentic and showing that you are working through it and appearing like you don’t know what you are doing. Using ‘We are clear about this but not this’ type language can help, ask people to bear with you but always go back to them when you say you will - even if you don’t have anything concrete to say.

In conclusion

Levels of anxiety can be reduced by the practical things - careful planning of office layout, onsite PPE, shifts and rotas - and of course continued home working where practical. Equally, promoting an inclusive, supportive and caring culture will help greatly. A place where they can share their concerns and feel that it’s OK not to feel OK.

Everyone’s personal experiences will be different and they all matter. As such, leaders and managers will need to be sensitive to any underlying tensions and address them carefully. The more people can slowly adjust, share experiences and regain confidence - the less anxiety they will experience.

Further help

If you are affected by these issues - either as a leader or are dealing directly with your own return to work anxiety, we can help.

Find out more about our Leadership Development and Employee Wellbeing Programmes. We also have a network of inspirational associate coaches, highly qualified in a range of coaching interventions.

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