How HR Can Reduce Employee Anxiety About Going Back to Work

"Re-entry anxiety" sounds like it's reserved for a NASA mission, but it isn't.

A lot has been written about the pros (no commute!) and cons (no change in scenery!) of remote work during the pandemic — but now that nearly a quarter of the population is fully vaccinated, the conversation is shifting toward bringing employees back from remote work.

And the return to work anxiety is real. In one survey, 65% of professionals said they had anxiety about going back to the office; some had concerns about safety, while others were stressed about childcare logistics. Some employees are experiencing high anxiety about companies returning to the office because working from home has afforded them a chance to live healthier lives, like being able to exercise in the morning before logging on (instead of spending that hour in traffic). For employees who have heavily quarantined in the past year, social interactions have been sparse, and going back to an environment where social engagement is constant is likely to be overwhelming.

To make matters even more complicated, most employers don't have a "return to the office plan" — and currently, they are split over whether employees will be required to return to the office in 2021, work from home, or offer a mix of both.

At Total Brain, we didn't just build an app to improve wellbeing and leave it at that — we have paired our technology with guidance, partnering with hundreds of companies around the country to build bespoke workplace wellness programs that meet the mental health demands of different professional cultures. That requires us to listen (a lot) to what human resource departments are thinking about when it comes to employee health and wellness. Here's what they're saying.

Building a Return to Work Playbook

Right now, human resources' concerns are truly reflective of what the polls are confirming: there is a huge amount of stress and anxiety about employees coming back to the office, and HR wants to use that information in building out their return to work policies. But because this situation is so unprecedented, they're not always sure where to start.

The majority of HR leaders we've spoken to rightly believe in starting with empathy. They're aware that employees are in various stages of working out elder care, managing virtual learning, and yes, mentally preparing for the resumption of the daily commute. People have had to establish new routines over the past year, and those routines will be disrupted. Formulating a return to work playbook based on empathy sounds simple, but there's complexity in figuring out hybrid work models vs. team needs vs. individual needs, all while trying to maintain company culture and keeping everybody happy and healthy. It's a tall order, but the good news is that there are advantages to basing workplace benefits on compassion.

In thinking about employee health and wellness post-pandemic, HR departments should look at what the challenges are and what structures have historically worked well in response. In implementing a wellness program and return to work strategy, we recommend:

  • Polling employees on what they want, need, and expect from a post-COVID workplace— as well as where they stand mentally and emotionally. Instead of guessing what employees will require to feel they can safely return to work, ask them! Not only will this create a sense of inclusion around company decisions, it will give employers a better idea of what the level of anxiety is around going back to work.

    We've been monitoring the ways that COVID has hurt employees' mental health, comparing it to data prior to the pandemic. Our most recent Mental Health Index report showed that sustained attention is down 33%, and the risk of general anxiety is up by 30%. Throughout the pandemic, Mental Health Index reports have shown that COVID's added burden has left employees dealing with depression, chronic stress, addiction, and anxiety — in too many cases, navigating the grieving process.

    Since some of the re-entry anxiety revolves around disrupting routines and removing benefits (like time to exercise at home), a hybrid working policy may be crucial to staff wellness in 2021. In a PwC poll, 55% of respondents expressed the desire for a hybrid work model — so create a wellness program that can work for hybrid, all-remote, and in-office work structures.

  • Establishing psychological safety in the workplace to combat burnout. Psychological safety is built on several tenets, inclusion — covered by your polling step — is one of them.

    Communication is another tenant, so setting clear expectations about working styles and times is important. Why? Some employees have had trouble closing their laptops when working from home. Some of us overworked out of fear that not being physically present in the office would keep us from being "seen"; others dove into work because other activities had been removed from their lives (like this guy, who drove himself to a heart attack); and some have barely been keeping up, trying to answer emails while homeschooling several children at once. Communicating a shared understanding that post-pandemic jobs mean employees may be on different schedules (and therefore responsive at different times) avoids the social pain of colleague competition (which neuroscience tells us elicits the same brain response as physical pain!. It also gives employees who are working around challenges like elder care "permission" to make space for personal needs, without feeling guilty or inadequate.

    Establishing psychological safety doesn't mean you're creating a situation where productivity can fall by the wayside, it just sets a goalpost in place for everyone, rather than have some employees chase an ever-moving goalpost and live on the edge of email anxiety — a great recipe for burnout. It smashes the myth that someone isn't doing a good job unless they are stressed. And that actually motivates employees more.

    Looking for advice to communicate alongside post-pandemic expectations? Follow our 3 foolproof ways to prevent work burnout.

  • Communicating with positive tones (rather than powerful tones) about offices returning to work. Plain and simple, positive workplaces are more productive — so opt for honey over vinegar. If it's one thing this year has taught us, it's that we need to be kind to ourselves if we want to get through the hard times. Fear-based workplaces can yield high levels of conscious negativity bias — in which someone perceives threats — and that can derail peak performance and increase turnover. Don't focus on the "musts" and the consequences, but rather the company's hopes, goals, and concern for employees as everyone navigates their re-entry anxiety. Providing resources to help them manage stress and anxiety validates sentiments with actions.

    There are proven benefits to being a "nice boss" — it improves employees' perception of their managers' status and effectiveness as a leader, as well as creates a more cohesive team dynamic. Rather than being firm and distant with your employees, acknowledge that this year has exposed our personal vulnerabilities and shown, more than ever, the power of work-life balance.

  • Providing technological tools as part of your company wellness programs. So many things have gone digital this year, and employee wellbeing tools are one of them. The Total Brain app has shown to help employees manage their mental health as they return to the office; a recent review of one of our healthcare clients — an industry on the frontlines of COVID stress — showed that training on the Total Brain app greatly improved employees' mood management throughout the crisis.

    Providing Total Brain's app-based program to employees lets them engage in brain-boosting activities anywhere, anytime — whether it's a quick meditation before a big meeting or a game that improves memory. And, the workplace analytics feature lets employers and workers measure the impact their investment is having. It's also conducive to workplaces that have a mix of in-office, remote, and hybrid workers.

    But as I mentioned, throwing technology at a problem is not enough. The busiest employees are the ones who need apps like Total Brain the most, but will be the least likely to use it. That's why we partner with businesses to create effective, customized onboarding and maintenance campaigns that will ensure employees reap the rewards. A decade of experience has shown us that employers need to actively create space for employees to spend time on the app, even if it's just a few minutes a day. This will create emotional safety in the workplace, which is a vital part of a good company wellness program.

  • Leading by example. Writing this as an executive myself, this might be the hardest strategy to tackle — but it's arguably one of the most important (and yes, it's doable!). HR's return to work playbook should emphasize the role executives and managers have in modeling the new characteristics of their employee wellness plan. Many of us haven't gone to the doctor this year, so consider having managers encourage their teams to catch up on medical appointments by doing so themselves. Promote the idea of actually taking those PTO days, which too many of us did not do in 2020. Executives often feel they have to send out email at all hours — consider having them schedule emails they compose at night to go out in the morning so employees don't feel the need to be constantly "on." HR can and should acknowledge the stress that managers feel in getting things done and producing results — but also reiterate that bosses who show vulnerability get ahead.

  • Leading by example will motivate employees to work together in meeting the challenges of the transition back to the office. Walking the talk — not just putting it in the employee handbook — is what really reinforces culture at the end of the day.

Health and Wellness in the Workplace: 2021 Is an Opportunity

As workplace leaders, coming out of this pandemic provides us a unique opportunity to improve how we work, how employers build relationships with their employees, and has a chance to boost productivity in a positive setting. Every single one of us had been affected by COVID-19 in one way or the other, which makes a return to the workplace a sort of universal reset button — one that gives us permission to speak more openly with each other about the impact it's had on our mental health.

That open and empathetic dialogue is something we've always valued in our partnerships with clients who want to create an environment that fosters healthy employees. That's part of what makes Total Brain a great component to your new and improved workplace wellness benefits — experienced guidance and open conversations that will help office workers return to work with minimal stress and anxiety, providing programs that improve focus, memory, and happy teams.Interested in building a dynamic workplace wellness program? Contact us to find out what that looks like, or request a demo to learn more about all the benefits of using the Total Brain app.

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