How to Manage ‘Back to Work’ Anxiety in Your Staff During Coronavirus

During and in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, ’back to work’ anxiety will be high for many employees who have adapted to a life of working remotely. Your staff’s mental health will need to be handled delicately, and you should expect workplace anxiety to present one of your biggest challenges as you navigate a safe return to work. 

With coronavirus still a real and present threat, it’s only fair that employees be a little anxious about returning from isolation. Stories like those arising from the JBS meat factory where staff have ceased working until the factory can assure them of their safety, show that tensions are high within the workplace. And with a total of 71 COVID-19 cases recorded within the factory, their fears are not unfounded. 

Further horror stories concerning individuals such as ‘Bunnings Karen’, who not only refused to follow the rules, but intentionally went out of her way to provoke front-line workers, can only add to the anxieties of staff members looking to return to work. 

Fear is a reasonable response to this very real danger, so it can be hard to know how to manage ‘back to work’ anxiety. This is uncharted territory, as much for you as for your staff.

Here are some ways that you can support your employees’ mental health as they return to work.

Check in on Your Employees’ Mental Wellbeing

You have so many roles and responsibilities as an employer, sometimes it can be hard to simply sit back and listen. Talk to your staff; ask them about their concerns and what you can do to allay their fears.  For many, just knowing that their boss is listening is a great way of easing workplace anxiety. 

A good place to start is with a survey like this one. You should send this out before you make the transition back to the workplace so you have a better understanding of what’s troubling your staff, and what you can do to help them. 

After the transition, surveys such as UC Denver’s ‘Perceived Stress Scale’ can track current stress levels to help you recognise employees who may be struggling with workplace anxiety. Mental health should be an ongoing conversation that continues well beyond the COVID-19 threat. 

Be Flexible and Understanding of ‘Back to Work’ Anxiety

As your staff emerge from lockdown, it may be difficult to return to ‘business as usual’. Some employees may suffer from something known as ‘reverse culture shock’ which refers to the fear of returning to society after a long absence. 

This unusual form of anxiety was first noticed amongst long-term Antarctic expeditioners, and you may find it presenting itself now amongst your staff. As Maree Riley, an Australian Antarctic Division psychologist says, ‘You don’t just come back, snap your fingers and pick up where you left.’

Be understanding. You may need to adapt your business structure to give your staff time to adjust. Perhaps you can offer flexible working hours, or continued remote options for those having trouble with the change.

Your staff have experienced a lot of change in the past few months, and the future looks to be just as unpredictable.

Dr Oliver Black, who’s an Honorary Fellow of the Department of Management of Deakin University, explains that there’s ‘often anxiety around readjustment, uncertainty and change’. Be patient and find ways to make a transition that works for everyone.

Keep Your Staff Informed

Rumours and misinformation can be breeding grounds for workplace anxiety; and they travel quickly within an office.

You can combat misinformation by keeping your staff up-to-date on current information from reliable sources. Consider a weekly meeting, or even an in-house newsletter or email blast. By explaining how you’ll be responding to new information; and what it means for your company and your staff, you can help reduce speculation and misinformation.

Remember, rumour doesn’t spread where facts flourish. Transparency will allow staff to feel respected, informed, and less inclined to believe false information.

Encourage a Mentally Healthy Work Environment

It’s your job to encourage a workplace that’s supportive of your staff’s mental health.

Develop an environment where employees feel safe voicing their concerns, and motivate your staff to not only share their thoughts, but to listen to others as well. Make it clear that fear and anxiety are perfectly reasonable emotions in these difficult times, and no one should be made to feel ashamed.

Encourage self-care such as meditation, breathing and mindfulness exercises, and offer your staff helpful resources for managing their anxiety.

Above all, don’t leave a staff member feeling shamed or isolated for their anxiety, but instead make the workplace a ‘safe space’ that cares about your employees’ mental wellbeing.

Assess Positive and Negative Changes Brought on by Coronavirus

Take a moment to assess the positives and negatives that have come out of the lockdown, not every change will be bad.

For example, if you’ve noticed an improvement in productivity while staff have been working remotely, consider whether your business will benefit from a roster that allows staff to work from home on occasion.

As Associate Professor Karina Jorritsma, says ‘individuals, teams and organisations are taking stock, using this time to ask ‘Why do we do things the way we do?’

Look After Yourself When Returning to Work

Practice what you preach. If you want to spread a message of self-care and positive mental health to your employees, you have to start with yourself.

Make sure to take stock of your own mental wellbeing. Your actions set an example for your staff, and a stressed, frazzled or anxious employer is going to give their employees reason to believe that they should be stressed, frazzled and anxious too.

Check in on your own mental health and take the time to practice self-care:

  • Breathing exercises
  • Healthy sleep habits
  • Healthy eating
  • Exercise
  • Meditation
  • Mindfulness activities

When you come from a place of positive mental health, it’s easier to encourage the same in your staff. This has been a hard time for you too, and being ’the boss’ doesn’t make you immune to ‘back to work’ anxiety.

Make Real and Visible Efforts Towards Health and Safety in the Workplace

Your employees’ health comes first. So follow the recommended procedures laid out by Safe Work Australia to make it clear that you take your staff’s health very seriously.

Encourage physical distancing and good hygiene within the workplace, and tell staff to stay at home if they’re feeling unwell. Make thorough cleaning part of the daily routine, and offer hand sanitiser and masks for all employees.

Check out Cushman and Wakefield’s ‘6 Feet Office’ for ideas on how vinyl stickers, ‘one-way’ paths through the workplace, and desktop sneeze guards can make your workplace safer.

Clear demonstrations of what safety precautions you’re taking will help you reduce ‘back to work’ anxiety in staff after coronavirus.

A Slow Recovery From ‘Back to Work’ Anxiety

Our society has faced massive upheavals in the last few months, and morale and mental health will likely suffer for it. Many employers will find themselves having to manage ‘back to work’ anxiety both in themselves and their staff.

But businesses that can manage workplace anxiety with compassion will find themselves and their staff recovering much quicker than those who fail to support their employees through the trauma.

As an employer, it’s your job to protect your staff, both from physical and mental harm. And by taking the time to understand and care for those who are suffering, we can all begin down the slow road to recovery.
So look after yourself. Look after your staff. And let’s all strive for a future that cares for our physical and mental wellbeing.