6 Ways To Reduce Return-to-Office Anxiety and Make Employees Feel Safe and Secure
Since COVID-19 pandemic started in early 2020, we have learned to adapt, work from home, and practice health protocols. The new government task force replaced the earlier quarantine classifications with the new alert level system. This allowed for more industries to operate and employees to work. Thus, the economy started to get back on its feet.
However, in a sudden turnaround, the Omicron variant began to surge. Fortunately, high vaccination rates particularly in the National Capital Region have been credited with less severe cases and deaths.
Amid these changes, companies have been working their way towards a new normal, including adopting the hybrid set-up. While this is seen as a positive development, there is anxiety among employees about returning to the workplace.
What is Return-to-Office Anxiety?
During the pandemic, people found comfort and safety in staying indoors and working from home. As such, many employees now hesitate to go back to their daily commute and work in shared office spaces where they might be exposed to the virus. This is even more so with those who have pre-existing health conditions. People are also afraid of catching the virus and bringing it home to their families. Nobody wants to put their elderly and children at risk.
In early 2021, the US-based Limeade Institute came out with a study on RTO anxiety. The final respondents were 4,553 full-time employees from France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia, and the U.S. According to the study, 100 % of those surveyed felt anxious about returning to the office. The top sources of RTO anxiety cited included the following:
Being exposed to COVID-19 (77%)
Less flexibility (71%)
Commuting to work (68%)
Wearing a mask (54%)
Also last year, the LHH and the Adecco Group staffing agency surveyed 14,800 knowledge workers from 25 countries on practices, behaviors, and attitudes towards work during the pandemic. The study showed that 74% of respondents felt that their company needed to focus more on mental health. Almost 50% of leaders and employees surveyed felt anxious about returning to the office. Based on the study, the countries with the highest levels of RTO anxiety were Australia (53%) and the U.S. (52%). On the other hand, Belgium and Germany had the lowest levels at 31%. Workplace wellness experts say that severe stress can cause physiological, mental, and emotional problems. As a result, employees become less productive or even choose to resign.
Therefore, employers and managers need to find ways to manage RTO anxiety in workers.
How to manage anxiety in the office
Start by empathizing with your employees. The pandemic has affected everyone in common and similar ways. Care and compassion for your workers will help you plan strategies on how to make it safer and easier for them to return to work. Prioritize the well-being of your employees and set up ways to monitor anxiety in the office. Knowing that their health and safety are taken seriously can already alleviate some of their anxiety.
Conduct a survey of your employees. Ask them what they think and how they feel about coming back to work. Consult them regarding plans you have for the new normal. Welcome constructive suggestions. Work together towards creating a safe space for your employees so they can perform better. They may have ideas on how to improve systems and procedures. After developing your plan, inform them of new policies and procedures. Keep them updated as to any changes you plan to implement.
Need more guidance on how to begin? Here is a list of health and safety guidelines you can adopt for your workplace.
3. Plan Well and Go Slow
Plan how to conduct and manage operations. This includes whom to bring in, who can still work from home, and which situations allow for a hybrid setup. Do this in stages, gradually moving towards full operations. Balance performance and productivity with the safety and well-being of your employees.
You can start with a skeletal workforce made up of individuals whose presence in the office is truly necessary. Others can still work from home or in a hybrid setup. You can also schedule and rotate staff at regular intervals. Consider those with more vulnerable health conditions. While providing the structure and system to operate effectively, be flexible and fair in managing employees and implementing policies.
4. Address Concerns and Create A Safe Space
Physically, emotionally, and psychologically, people need to feel safe and secure. This matters whether your workplace is remote, hybrid, or completely on-site. Take steps and measures to provide your employees with this safe space. You may adopt company policies and protocols on vaccination, mask-wearing, and social distancing. Provide alcohol sanitizers and ensure proper air circulation and ventilation. Sanitize the office at the end of the day.
Safe space on another level has to do with open communication. Given the pandemic, employees need to feel they can talk and communicate with their leaders on how they feel about their work and the way things are done in the office. This can also give you a handle for monitoring levels of anxiety in the office.
5. Provide Mental Health Monitoring and Support Systems
To support the mental health of employees in the company, start by providing mental health training for the leaders, department heads, and managers. This should include enabling them to identify and respond to RTO anxiety which can manifest in any unusual change in behavior or physical symptoms such as the following:
Feeling uneasy, restless, or overtired
Panic attacks as seen through heavy sweating, breathlessness, or nervousness
Unusual increase in productivity (as compensating behavior)
Holding weekly group or one-on-one meetings to check up on people can be helpful. Through these sessions, managers can find out how the employees are doing and what kind of support they need.
6. Strengthen Organizational Culture
To promote the psychological and mental health of people in the office, strengthen the collective “immune system” by cultivating mutual trust, care, and cooperation. Leaders and managers need to recognize and appreciate staff members and encourage work-life balance for all.
In the end, COVID-19 has kept us apart, but it has also brought us closer together as people. Fear and anxiety due to the pandemic are common and universal. Like any community, the workplace can be made safe again through compassion, communication, and cooperation.
Amid changes and uncertainty, people can give and find strength in each other to move forward. Working together and taking practical steps, people can overcome RTO anxiety towards safety, security, and success.