Managing return to work anxiety

Eugene Farrell

30 May 2021

As we’re asked to return, for homeworkers and furloughed teams, there is a need to adjust from isolation at home to shared workspaces.

The advice has been to; stay away from others, not to mix indoors, wear masks and wash hands. These protective measures, which are personal behaviours, were designed to stop the spread of the virus. These actions are now ingrained, deeply rooted and for some reinforced by fear. We are unlikely to simply stop them, nor should we in many circumstances. Our worlds are about to change, and just being in the company of others may feel strange, and feelings of anxiety and caution may develop amongst your workforce. 

What is this going to mean for organisations bringing their employees back into a workplace?

Decision makers must think about workspaces. How many people can we accommodate? How much physical space to allow between individuals? What is ventilation and hydration like? What legislative requirements/guidelines must I meet? There are a whole host of occupational considerations to be business ready. Considering anxiety, also consider:  

  • Public spaces may also need to be repurposed. One idea is to provide places where people can get away from others for a time, not for private working but for psychological rest.
  • Public transport may be a challenge for some, consider staggering start and end times to shift people out of the busiest and stressful commuting times. 

Organisations should also be thinking about communication and transparency. It’s important employees know: 

  • what to expect in the workplace
  • that they can express upwards any concerns they may have
  • feel open and able to discuss their anxiety.

Don’t expect everyone to instantly adapt to the new environment, employees are likely to adjust to the return at different speeds, both they and you need to be patient. Some people may struggle to make the change from the sanctuary of home to a shared space. Employers and managers need to be alert and be on the lookout. Consider:

  • Regular check-ins to read the mood and pick up on anyone who shows signs of mal-coping e.g. fear, avoidance, poor work or attendance.
  • Promoting self-help and support tools - get people thinking about their personal triggers and how to recognise and manage them.
  • Fostering a spirit of community and looking out for each other. Encourage people to talk and share their experiences.
  • Supporting those in work and adjusting to the prospect of returnees
  • For those who are struggling, that support is available and accessible.
    • An EAP can help with talking through the anxiety.
    • Occupational Health intervention may be needed to support some and manage those who may become work absent.
    • There are Apps equipped with tips and tools to help individuals self-manage. 
  • Making adjustments on a more formal basis for any employees with pre-existing mental health problems, particularly anxiety. These should be discussed, and an agreed plan put in place with regular monitoring.

It is perfectly fine to say that you do not know all the answers, remain flexible and open about the changing situation.

Watch our video guides:

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Key considerations for employee return

For many, you’ll be planning how your business safely manages the return of employees to your workplaces; from controls to reduce the spread of infection, to ways to support manager’s and employee’s apprehensions.

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Managing return to work anxiety

Join Eugene Farrell, Mental Health Lead and Dr Sarah Holton, Occupation Health Practitioner as we explore return to work anxiety.

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