For the past several weeks the message has been to stay at home and go out only when necessary. Our lives have been filled with news of something terrible out there. Something unseen and dangerous. It’s not surprising that asking people to emerge from their protective enclave into a world where awful things might happen to them is going to cause fear and anxiety.
The transition from home working to office is one that needs careful consideration. Every workplace needs to consider its own position and communicate plans early to staff so that employees can begin adjusting their thinking towards return. Senior management needs to be clear about the practical measures that will ensure employees feel safe to return. They need to make sure everyone knows what is expected of them, what are ‘the rules’ they must follow in the workplace.
Of particular importance is travel, and for some this may the most anxious part of their day. People may arrive to work in a bit of a state and need a bit of time to calm down. Others may need parking arrangements while they’re avoiding public transport. While those cycling may need secure cycle storage and shower facilities.
To feel psychologically safe, people need information and reassurance. Line managers are going to have to put effort in to really get this right. It won’t just happen. They need to fully understand the practical execution of all measures in the workplace so that they can explain things confidently and clearly and not create further worry.
In adversity people pull together. We see this in crisis situations, and creating a sense of community and support will help to get through the transition into workplace-working again, so that all efforts are for the greater good.
By speaking to all team members, line managers can ensure their teams understand what is in place to keep them safe as individuals, and for team members to express any concerns they have. Risk assessments where needed must be undertaken and put in place steps to mitigate those risks. This is a time to be flexible and adaptable. If staff identify something that isn’t working, change it, if it’s safe to do so. People are generally good judges of what they need and cooperation will achieve more success overall.
Vigilance is something that’s needed here too from line managers. They should observe behaviours, interactions and conversation. Not all team members are going to be forthcoming with their concerns, so line managers need to spot changes in behaviour, to hear implicit expressions of fear and anxiety. If someone is concerned that they may appear weak when everyone else seems strong, feels embarrassed about their feelings, or is worried about their job, they’re less likely to speak about their distress. Picking up the signs and acting is definitely a role for line managers. This isn’t a one-time interaction. Managers need regular check-ins to further reassure and monitor.
Employees with underlying mental health conditions may experience an amplification of those symptoms when they return to the workplace. Others may be worried about leaving their family, a sort of ‘abandonment’ in a time of dread, and some might worry about bringing the virus back into the home from work and travel. Ensure that all employees know where to get support. An EAP for example can offer individual counselling that may help with worries.
If someone is so overwhelmed that they do not feel able to return, management need clear guidance about managing any adjustments that may be needed for such mental health situations.