How to help your employees with back-to-work anxiety

As coronavirus restrictions are lifted, many Australians will soon be starting to head back to their workplaces. For NFP leaders and managers, one important thing to start considering is how to manage any anxiety your staff may be feeling during the transition back to the workplace after the coronavirus.

Even though it might feel like things are slowly starting to get back to normal, surveys show the majority of Australians are still concerned about COVID-19. Combined with the fact that many people are, or expect to be, heading back to their usual place of work in the near future, it’s not surprising to learn they may be feeling anxious at the prospect.

This is uncharted territory for you too, so be mindful of taking care of yourself and remember that it’s okay not to have all the answers during this transition.

Considering the coronavirus is a legitimate health concern, it makes sense that people are anxious about it, and that this can be compounded by regular work stress. However, there are other reasons why people may be experiencing a heightened sense of anxiety during this period.

“There’s often anxiety around readjustment, uncertainty and change,” says Dr Oliver Black, a Honorary Fellow of the Department of Management at Deakin University

“We experienced that heading into the pandemic, when working life shifted for many of us, and coming out of it is also fraught because we’re dealing with those things once again.

If you employ staff, you have obligations around ensuring their health and safety in relation to COVID-19.

These include encouraging workers to practice physical distancing, maintain good hygiene and stay home when they’re feeling sick. There are also other steps you can take and strategies you can use to help your staff get back to work:

1. Acknowledge that anxiety is expected

Dr Black believes it is important for employers to acknowledge that employee anxiety about returning to work is reasonable.

“Showing you understand your employee’s concerns and that you are addressing them helps to build trust. This will make employees more willing to provide constructive feedback, which is important.

2. Stay nimble

With restrictions easing, many workplaces have a unique opportunity to assess their ways of working. They can not only reintroduce practices that were beneficial pre-COVID, but retain some of the new approaches that have been successful over the last few months.

For example, if people have been performing their roles well while working from home, you could consider keeping – or at least having a discussion around retaining – those flexible work arrangements moving forward.

“Several aspects of your employees’ lives are likely to be changing at the same time so it’s important to support them. That might mean letting them work a little differently, where that’s possible,” says Dr Black.

He also suggests checking in regularly with your employees throughout this process.

“This will help you monitor their wellbeing and manage risks, including promoting help-seeking or continuing to adjust work practices.”

3. Create a healthy work environment

The principles required to create and maintain a mentally healthy workplace during the transition back to a physical workplace remain the same as pre-COVID. Strategies such as ensuring good work design, including providing role clarity, feedback, co-worker support and recognition, haven’t changed, nor have the benefits to employers (lower presenteeism and absenteeism).

“Business owners and managers should access best practice advice about workplace mental health more broadly, as well as capitalising on the current high levels of awareness surrounding mental health to address mental health stigma in the workplace,” says Dr Black.

Bear in mind, too, that the shift which has occurred in many working environments as a result of coronavirus may mean a previously mentally healthy workplace has taken a hit. For example, employees’ roles may have changed, and usual feedback loops and support networks may be disrupted.

This can mean that risks that were previously mitigated may not be now, so it’s important to reassess and understand how managers can lead the way to healthy work environments. Additionally, instances of unwanted sexual advances in the workplace can create further strain on employees’ mental well-being and should be addressed promptly and effectively by management.

Of course, this involves business owners and managers taking care of themselves too. This includes ensuring they are exercising regularly, eating well, getting enough sleep and accessing support when necessary

“It’s really important that they prioritise their own mental health and wellbeing during this time and feel able to access support when they need it,” says Dr Black.

4. Celebrate the opportunity to reconnect

There have been a few perks associated with working from home, such as no commuting and additional spare time, but we’ve also lost a lot. This includes things most of us probably took for granted, such as morning coffee runs with colleagues or staff drinks (that aren’t over Zoom) at the end of a long week. Even just being able to talk to a co-worker to ask a quick question or have a chat have been missed by your employees and volunteers.

So when the time does come to return to the office or the worksite, encourage your team to enjoy the little things that have been absent over the last three months. Lead the way by taking the time to have that one-on-one conversation with a colleague. Visit your regular café, just like you used to.

They might seem small, but these actions can help with establishing some normality back into your staff members’ routines.

This post was originally published by Beyond Blue. Photo by Christina Morillo.

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