Archived Insight | December 2, 2021

Five Ways to Address Anxiety About Returning to the Office

The pandemic has upended how our society interacts and works. Many employees demonstrated great flexibility and resilience as employers transitioned them to remote work. Sixty percent of employees are currently working from home, according to the 2021 Workplace Wellness Survey conducted by Employee Benefit Research Institute and Greenwald Research.

Now, many employers are ready to return employees to the workplace. They may be unsure how to best assist employees who are anxious about making that transition.

Businesswomen Return To Office During COVID 19 Pandemic

Here are five tips for supporting employees’ well-being as they prepare to return to the workplace:

  1. Limit physical interaction among employees.
  2. Keep mask requirements simple.
  3. Ensure workplace policies are clear, updated and accessible.
  4. Promote a flexible work environment.
  5. Encourage employees to revisit and take advantage of EAP resources.

Limit physical interaction

One cause for anxiety among employees is how to interact with their peers once they return to the workplace. Before the pandemic, handshakes or high-fives may have been standard. In today’s world, employees have new worries about whether avoiding a handshake appears rude or if elbow bumps bring people too physically close.

To circumvent this uncertainty, it’s best for employers to openly promote options that fit all comfort levels. It’s okay for employees to greet others in whatever way feels comfortable — and to voice an opinion about their greeting preference.

Remember, months of relative social isolation may have increased employees’ discomfort with physical closeness, even apart from viral transmission concerns.

Keep mask requirements simple

Of all the aspects of returning to work, masks are one of the most confusing. Mask policies can produce anxiety because of:

  • Fears of difficulty recognizing peers because masks obscure much of the face
  • Anxiety about not being able to read lips when a coworker speaks
  • Concerns about sending a politically charged message by wearing or not wearing a mask
  • Apprehension about COVID transmission if others aren’t wearing masks properly
  • Confusion about the application of state and federal masking regulations
  • Discomfort wearing a mask, particularly for prolonged periods or for those more comfortable wearing a mask, concerns related to removing a mask

So, what’s an employer to do about mask anxieties? Don’t let employees overthink mask-wearing. Instead, post easy-to-understand instructions about where and when masks are required. Making this information available to employees ahead of time will allow them to reach out for any special accommodations. Ensure that state, local and federal laws are followed. This will remove the guesswork, and much of the anxiety, for employees.

Ensure workplace policies are clear, updated and accessible

Employees will have many questions about how the workplace will look and feel once they return. Policies should address new cleaning practices, what actions an employee should take after COVID exposure, mask requirements and more. Linda Hill, a Harvard Business School professor, notes that anxiety can stem from fear of “looking weak or not living up to expectations.”

Promote a flexible work environment

As employees return to their workplaces, they may be struggling with the logistics of transitioning childcare or of how to schedule ongoing mental health treatment. To ease employees’ fears of losing the flexibility they enjoyed while working remotely, provide reassurance that the organization respects current challenges and will accommodate individual needs.

Employees may ask for accommodations for mental health reasons. They might need to schedule mental health appointments during typical work hours, making up the time later or using time off. Another possible request could be for a low-stimulation work area. It’s best to think through potential requests ahead of time and plan a consistent and fair strategy for how you’ll provide accommodations to employees.

Encourage employees to revisit and take advantage of EAP resources

A recent study published in The Lancet found the pandemic increased the prevalence of anxiety disorders by about 25 percent. Since many employees affected by new stressors may never have accessed the organization’s employee assistance program (EAP) or Member Assistance Program (MAP) before, everyone — anxious or not — may need a refresher of what is available to them through this resource. A 2021 poll by Teladoc found that 61 percent of respondents were unsure how to begin receiving care for their mental health. This means that in this stressful time, reminding employees of resources could significantly improve employees’ access to treatment.

Keep in mind that the resources available through the EAP or MAP may not meet your employees’ increased needs for mental health and substance use disorder treatments brought on by the pandemic. For more information on that important issue, refer to “Combatting COVID-19-Related Alcohol and Substance Use.”

How do people feel about returning to the workplace and working from home?

We recently surveyed over 500 Americans to find out how they feel about returning to the office. Twenty-six percent are not looking forward to it. While a similar percentage of respondents are looking forward to being back in the office (25 percent), many people are ambivalent. We also learned that large majorities of respondents valued aspects of working remotely: not commuting (86 percent) and improved work/life balance (71 percent). (See an infographic of the survey results.)

What’s causing anxiety about returning to the workplace?

Employees have numerous understandable reasons to feel anxious about returning to the workplace.

When asked what made them uneasy about returning to work, 77 percent cited fear of exposure to COVID-19; 71 percent were apprehensive of losing leniency associated with working remotely; and 69 percent dreaded resuming their commute, according to a Limeade Institute survey.

These stressors arrive on the heels of unprecedented strain brought on by the pandemic. Employees have been struggling to adapt to alternative childcare, to address illness among themselves or their loved ones and to navigate anxiety-producing news coverage. In fact, roughly half of Americans acknowledge that the pandemic damaged their mental health and about 40 percent of Americans now exhibit indications of depression and anxiety. (Read more in our fourth quarter 2020 Trends).

You can support employees’ well-being during this stressful period

Taking the steps outlined in this article can help address employees’ anxiety about returning to the office. It also demonstrates the organization’s commitment to employees’ mental health.

Interested in learning more about how to address employee anxiety related to returning to the workplace?

Let’s have a conversation.

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There’s more for employers to consider about returning to on-site work

In a webinar held in August 2021, three of Segal’s premier business leaders reviewed strategies employers can consider to help protect both their people and the organization, including best practices for the workplace and enterprise risk trends and mitigation ideas.

To learn more, watch the webinar recording.

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This page is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal, tax or investment advice. You are encouraged to discuss the issues raised here with your legal, tax and other advisors before determining how the issues apply to your specific situations.