‘Talk to people’ | How to support staff with back-to-work anxiety

How to support staff with back-to-work anxiety

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled a ‘roadmap’ out of lockdown, which provided employers and the public with an indication of when they could expect various sectors to reopen. The most recent to reopen was non-essential retail and outdoor hospitality which took place on April 12, 2021, and saw many employees return to a central working location.

As England continues to navigate through this ‘roadmap’ out of lockdown – and more and more sectors reopen – employers and HR will likely start to draw up plans for a return to the office. While some staff may look forward to the prospect of seeing colleagues in person again, others may have concerns about going back as research has suggested.

For example, the Supporting Your Remote Workforce in 2021 and Beyond report, found that around 40% of UK office workers were worried about catching coronavirus from their colleagues by returning to work, as was reported by City AM. As the dedicated people function, HR should consider how they can help manage the back-to-work anxieties that some staff could be experiencing.

How can HR help manage back-to-work anxiety?

Vicki Field, an Independent HR Practitioner, exclusively told HR Grapevine that as people professionals, the function needs to understand that people will be experiencing different anxieties when offices do reopen. Whether this is fear of catching the virus, using public transport again “or any other of the myriad of worries and anxieties that mean we are human”, these unique concerns should be at the forefront of HR’s mind. The concerns and worries felt by employees is supported by statistics.

For example, a 2020 study from the Resolution Foundation think tank found that more than one-third of workers were concerned about catching coronavirus on the job. Although this study was conducted last year, it is possible that staff could have these fears when returning later this year. Elsewhere, with research pointing towards the financial saving of homeworking – MoneySupermarket figures found that lockdown homeworkers have saved an average of £126 per month on commuting since March 2020 – it is possible that some staff could be worried about the financial impact of commuting once again. These are just some examples of the worries that staff may have.

To properly support staff with these back-to-work anxieties, Field said that the HR function should try to understand individual worker worries and consider what they can do to help. She explained: “The first thing is to try and understand each person’s anxiety, and work to mitigate it. Does the person have to be back in the office? If not, let them work out their own ‘return to office’ plan. Any change can cause fear and anxiety so giving someone control over the change, lessens the negative emotions.”

What else can HR do to make it less nerve-wracking?

When facilitating this return, HR and employers should also consider how to make this less daunting and nerve-wracking. Again, Field said that employees will likely be worried about different things. “If you’ve picked your kids up from school every day for a year (or home schooled!), the idea of a nanny/ baby-sitter/ back to school club might worry both of you,” she added.

“If you’ve not had to spend £1,000 plus on a season ticket, the costs might alarm. If you’ve enjoyed being at home and walking every day, the idea of a pressure of an office 9-5 might feel too much.”

The HR practitioner recommended HR to ask people what works for them on a personal level and build in any change gradually. “Don’t try and second guess, talk to people,” she explained.

The importance of supporting staff with back-to-work anxieties

The pandemic has had a huge impact on mental health. In May last year, the Chief Executive of Mind, Paul Farmer, said that fast action was needed to support mental health services after the charity saw one million people download content from its site within a few weeks. Speaking to Sky News – as was reported by Metro – Farmer warned of an ‘emerging mental health crisis’ due to the lockdown period. Data has also pointed towards the mental toll of working amid a pandemic. For example, Wade Macdonald data revealed that almost one-third of employees said that their mental health has declined as a result of the pandemic.

Field concluded: “Mental health has been massively impacted by the pandemic, and change is always stressful. HR should have a comprehensive wellbeing strategy aimed at every element of life. Let’s not ‘go back’, let’s ‘move forward’. It’s our opportunity, in HR, to build a new way of working that benefits everyone and develops strong and positive cultures.”

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