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Is return to work anxiety (RTWA) a real thing?

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As we move towards the latter stages of the pandemic, many of us 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 lockdown rules across the UK.  Medium-sized companies have been focused on finding that perfect balance between working from home and working from the office whilst smaller organisations in many cases have sold offices or exited rental contracts enabling them to adapt, plan and support a firm 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.

What happens if employees are really struggling with the idea of going back to the office and is RTWA 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 depending 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 RTWA are:

Creating a safe space

 

Those employees suffering from RTWA need to feel safe; they need to understand the rules and policies that affect them but also protect them.  These (and 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 from RTWA 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 well 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 RTWA to take things slowly.  A one step at a time approach where those struggling with RTWA can be encouraged.  Employees can be supported to return to work at their own pace with no pressure to socialise just because everyone else wants to.

“But you have been double vaccinated?”

 

It’s important that we remember that those who have been double vaccinated may still suffer from RTWA.  We know that even those who have been double vaccinated can still catch covid19 and can still be become ill, albeit the symptoms and illness are likely to be less harmful and individuals are less likely to face time in hospital.  In this case, it’s important that those who have been double vaccinated but are suffering from RTWA have access to up-to-date information that is factually correct and from a reliable source.  This will help alleviate any unnecessary build-up of anxiety and will reduce anxiety triggers in the workplace.

“How long will you have anxiety for?”

 

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 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 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 from RTWA

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).  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 workplace wellbeing 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.

Aviva says 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.

https://www.aviva.co.uk/business/business-perspectives/featured-articles-hub/wellbeing-culture/

Every 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, are more likely to be demotivated, dissatisfied, and potentially leave their jobs altogether.

Understanding The Importance of Company Culture on Wellbeing