MAKE A DIFFERENCE | workplace culture / mental health / wellbeing

“Freedom Day”: How to Ensure Returning Staff Feel Supported

As workplaces reopen, here are some tips to easing employees back in a way that’s caring and inclusive.

It is entirely natural that individual employees might be worried about returning to a ‘normal’ working routine in the new environment. Many will have been working from home the whole time, on furlough for some of it, or even looking for work along the way. Others will have been going into their place of work every day.

Whatever the case, the post-lockdown work environment will be a big change for most staff, and the thought of a busy commute or being around a lot more people all day while settling into a different routine may be making some feel anxious.

There may be employees who cannot wait for the end of lockdown, with almost 37% looking forward to returning to normal life, according to research by Anxiety UK, however just over 20% are feeling anxious about returning to work.

When it comes to welcoming employees back to working in-person, it’s important that organisations put an emphasis on self-care and embed a culture of wellbeing into day-to-day operations, while encouraging a caring environment for all aspects and ages of the workforce. Here are some tips to help employers ensure the needs of staff members are catered for as workplaces start to open up again.

1. Don’t assume staff will be more productive in the office – at least at first

Recent research conducted by The RSA suggested that rather than dropping off a cliff, productivity may have risen. The survey found that 55% of homeworkers said working from home meant they found it easier to get more work done, while Vitality data shows that 40% of people are replacing the one hour on average gained from their commute with extra time working. It will also take time for employees to get used to seeing their peers again and this may cause distractions, especially at first. With this in mind, employers can expect levels of productivity to fall for some members of staff as they adjust – and this is likely to be entirely understandable.

2. Suggest staff start small and build up

After a year of interacting virtually, it’s understandable that employees might feel awkward about seeing their work colleagues in real life. It’s very normal for some staff to feel overwhelmed by the removing of restrictions and unsure about communicating in big groups. A supportive employer would allow staff to feel like they can ease themselves into face-to-face meetings gradually, rather than be expected to take part in big team get togethers from the very first day. One way to do this is suggest employees start with one-to-one meetings and build up as they grow in confidence.

3. Expect a range of emotions among employees

For line managers during lockdown it has been a challenge – and the same will be true of the post-lockdown environment. The emotions of team members may vary widely, with some feeling excited, others fearful about returning to work. There is likely to be more than just laziness behind a staff member’s reluctance, especially where social anxiety may be playing its part. A Vitality survey showed the percentage of employees reporting low-life satisfaction had increased from 30% to 53% compared to prior to the pandemic, while a recent Business in the Community report showed that four in 10 UK employees have suffered mental health issues as a result of work. It’s therefore important that employers and line managers remain attentive to how their staff members may be feeling and be ready to make adjustments to help put them at ease.

4. Endeavour to embrace inclusive ways of hybrid working

Only 16% of homeworkers said they would prefer to work in a physical location full-time in the future, according to a recent report, so the onus is on employers to build and embed ways of working that balances the best of both worlds in a way that’s productive and sustainable for staff. The same report also showed that evidence from lockdown suggests that three groups – female caregivers, young people and ethnic minorities – have all suffered disproportionately as a result of the pandemic. For example, analysis from the RSA showed that concentration levels for women working from home were hit worse than for men, especially when looking at homeworkers with children under 12. Employers should therefore ensure that those opting to work more flexibility are treated inclusively, fairly and with consideration, even once offices have reopened again.

Want to hear more about the workplace wellbeing challenges employers face post-lockdown? Read this article exploring the areas that organisations most need to be aware of.

‘Healthy Hybrid’: Four Lessons From Lockdown