The Reality of Returning to the Office.

Returning to the office

6 min read

As we move towards the latter stages of the pandemic, many of have us have already or are readying ourselves to move back to the office depending on the demands of our employer.

In general terms, large companies such as FTSE 100 brands and organisations have been getting back to the office since around May 2021.  This has been a slow trickle based on role, responsibility, COVID variants and the progressive easing of lock down rules across the UK.  Medium sized companies have been focused on finding that perfect balance between working from home and working in the office, a hybrid working model, whilst smaller organisations in many cases have sold offices or exited rental contracts enabling them to adapt, plan and support a work from home policy for all. 

It really does depend on the size and type of company we might work for and the role we play that will impact us and our personal long-term working from home or working from office future.  A recent article from the BBC said that: “a total of 70% of 1,684 people polled predicted that workers would never return to offices at the same rate”.  Those surveyed for the BBC went on to say that “neither productivity nor the economy would be harmed by continuing work-from-home policies.”

But what about employee engagement and wellbeing in the workplace?

What happens if employees are really struggling with the idea of going back to the office and return to work anxiety is a real thing? 

In a report about returning to work by Eden Health, Dr Rachelle Scott, Eden’s Director of Psychiatry says, “The anxiety employees are feeling is real” and that it can stem from various places dependent on the person and circumstances.  Dr Scott goes on to say, “just as we felt anxious in the first few weeks of the pandemic and then slowly acclimated to working from home and being more restricted, we’re now going through a similar process of reacclimating to in-person activities, which can produce varying levels of anxiety.”

Some of the key considerations in supporting those with this type of anxiety are:

  • Creating a safe space

Those employees suffering with return-to-work anxiety need to feel safe; they need to understand the rules and policies that affect them, and also protect them.  All employees need to be dealt with empathetically and with compassion and whilst it might seem a big ask, each employee needs to be seen for who they are, treated as an individual and their personal needs met and understood. 

  • Peer support

All employees need to understand the rules of play when returning to the office but even more importantly, colleagues surrounding those suffering with return-to-work anxiety should take the time to understand boundaries, needs and how they can support their teammates.

  • Employer responsibility

Employers and leaders across all types of organisations can support their employees by planning for a  return to the office.  It’s important that this planning phase is done carefully and is considered.

Clearly communicating the policies, procedures, and expectations early on will support all colleagues to understand the expectations and behaviours required.

Leaders must role model the application of policy and procedure, taking time to understand the fears and needs of their direct reports and encourage those with return-to-work anxiety to take things slowly.  A one step at a time approach for those struggling with should be encouraged.  Employees should be supported to return to work at their own pace.

How long can we expect to be facing differing types of anxiety post the pandemic?

Anxiety, caused by any event or moment in life has no timeline, it can stick around for days, weeks, months or years and anxiety attacks can range from minor to severe panic attacks.  We can’t and shouldn’t engage employees in a discussion that starts with ‘has your anxiety gone now?’  What’s important is that employers are open to an employee’s needs and to support them by creating a safe space for them to be in.  We are moving away from a two-dimensional working environment and are reintroducing the use of all our senses, so it’s likely that physical space and boundaries will need to be understood.  Consider too those employees who might feel low self-esteem or lacking in confidence in how they communicate with others and may even have anxiety about their appearance in a live environment.

The benefits of supporting those who are suffering with return to work anxiety.

First and foremost, it is the employer’s obligation to support all employees in their return to work in the physical space and let’s be honest it’s the right thing to do.  The world has been through a crisis, and we aren’t out of the woods yet. 

An 8th of the global population is now challenged with a mental health or substance misuse disorder, as a collective, this is commonly known as a behavioural-health condition (McKinsey & Co July 2021).  [ch3] It is crucial now that as we work through this next phase of a global pandemic, that organisations take on board these statistics and change their approach to employee wellbeing with a much stronger strategic line.

The challenge that organisations are faced with is that without a strong strategic line, focusing on wellbeing in the workplace through long-term cultural change, employee behavioural-health conditions will be exasperated, which will drive down an employee’s self-worth and productivity.  This is a widespread problem that is already having serious implications.

The good news however is, that in this period of the pandemic, organisations everywhere have a window of opportunity to rethink their workplace policies, their return-to-work agenda and can reshape the culture of a hybrid working environment.

The benefits of supporting and nurturing employees for a safe return to work are significant.  Getting this right will impact organisational growth and employee engagement for the longer term.  For example A recent blog from Aviva said that “employees who are happier, healthier, and better able to manage stress are more likely to stay put.  This reduces staff turnover, saves on recruitment costs as well as keeping valuable experience within the business.”

An article from very mind at Work suggests that “88% of employees (survey taken in 2020) believe a solid workplace culture is imperative to the success of an organisation and that employee wellbeing is central to this.  They say that workplace culture is important because it promotes a happy environment. A happy culture is just as important as your business needs because employees who feel comfortable and respected are more likely to perform better.  Importantly though and in contrast, organisations with a culture where employees feel disrespected, ignored and undervalued, they are more likely to be demotivated, dissatisfied and potentially leave their jobs altogether.”

To find out more about how Infinity Wellness can support you with your employee engagement and workplace wellbeing initiative then get in touch – or give us a call on 07712 420 441.

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