Return To Work Anxiety: Seven Ways Businesses Can Spot Signs And Support Employees

Despite lockdown restrictions ending officially in England on 19 July, fewer than one in five people working in 30 of the UK’s cities had returned to the office by the end of the month, the Centre for Cities think tank revealed. It seems that while the plans for a return to the office by businesses may have been set in motion, some are choosing a staggered approach.

They are either aligning with the ‘return to school’ or easing employees back by suggesting a minimum of two to three days a week as a starter for ten. And then there are others who are simply scrapping the full five-days a week in favour of adopting a permanent ‘hybrid’ way of working. 

Whichever approach a business chooses to take on welcoming employees back to the workplace, it’s clear that it is the beginning of a return to some form of ‘normality’. As a result, after spending more than a year working at home or having been furloughed for a long period of time many employees are finding it a relief, a celebration, or even a lifeline.

However, there are those who will still remain anxious about the thought of a return to their workplace. This includes those who are clinically vulnerable or living in close proximity to someone who is clinically vulnerable, and others who simply do not feel ready to give up all restrictions including social distancing or the wearing of masks.

In fact, a recent study from the Limeade Institute revealed that 100% of employees surveyed – that were previously working on-site pre-pandemic, but are currently working from home – had  some anxiety about returning to work. 

The impact that COVID-19 has had on the mental health of working age adults

This comes as no real surprise, as dealing with life since March 2020 – the uncertainty, stress, and isolation – has placed a heavy toll on employees’ wellbeing. So it’s no wonder that some employees are feeling the strain.

In fact, a recent report from Kooth – the Kooth Pulse 2021 – unearthed the profound impact the pandemic has had on the mental health of working age adults. It revealed an 89% increase in adults coming to Kooth for mental health support, with 39% saying they feel down, depressed, or hopeless nearly every day. That’s a rise of 28% compared with 2019.

The study went on to explain that during the pandemic working age adults on the Kooth platform had experienced higher rates of sleep difficulties, suicidal thoughts, self-harm issues, and sadness – which saw a 129% increase in July 2020 alone.

Feelings of return to work anxiety

The research from the Limeade Institute goes on to reveal that 77% of those surveyed cited being exposed to COVID-19 as their top source of anxiety.  But, the return to work anxiety that some employees are feeling is not just about the risk of catching COVID.

For some employees, the anxiety that they are feeling is about experiencing new things or returning to activities they haven’t done in a long time, such as the return to a busy office after months working from home, readapting to the daily commute and direct or indirect physical contact. Whilst we can control our own behaviour to some extent, we cannot control the behaviour of others who may be less worried. 

Identifying the signs

It is important that employers pay attention to potential indicators of distress or signs of those amongst their workforce who are not coping. From the senior leadership team to the human resources department everyone should have their antennae tuned into their employees’ wellbeing, keeping an eye out for any signs of concern or distress. 

Identifying the signs of anxiety can often be a minefield for employers. However, one of the key indicators that an employee is struggling to cope with changes to their daily routine is when they are feeling on edge, restless, withdrawn, or overtired. Overcompensating through an unusual increase in productivity might also be a warning sign – the key thing here is a change in usual behaviour.

Anxiety can present itself through physical symptoms too, so employers should also be aware of any increased absences due to physical ailments, along with communications regarding poor sleep and symptoms of panic such as sweating, breathlessness and avoidance of activities. 

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Supporting employees

Everyone is different, but when noticing any changes the first port of call for an employer is to try and talk openly with the employee. It’s essential that a safe space is provided where the employee feels that they have time to talk, and will be listened to – somewhere they can share their worries when feeling anxious, without judgement and fear of stigma, can really help. While simply talking can sometimes feel daunting to employees, it is a crucial first step to addressing difficult emotions. 

It is vitally important that those employees who are anxious do not feel embarrassed or under pressure to ‘just be grateful’ that lockdown restrictions have been lifted. With this in mind it is crucial that employers pay attention to potential indicators of distress or signs of not coping amongst their workforce. 

Collectively, employers must make sure employee wellbeing is a top priority as they return to the office. And as a duty of care, employers need to be mindful of those who may be feeling higher-levels of anxiety. With this in mind, Kooth has put together seven practical tips employers can implement to support employee mental wellbeing as they return to the office:

  1. Keep employees informed: ensure there is no ambiguity on, or miscommunication surrounding, the ‘return to work’ plan, timeline and policies. If things change, let them know.
  2. Lead by example: as an employer, it’s important to set a good example and ‘practice what you preach’. If employees are being asked to be in the workplace 60% of the time, make sure leaders are too.
  3. Communication is a two-way street: provide a safe space for employees to raise their concerns and fears about the return to work, i.e. an anonymous pulse survey or employee engagement platform/app and/or mental health first aider.
  4. Be flexible and fair: ensure that employees are being listened to and concerns and fears that employees have on the return to work are being addressed. And adjust plans and policies to make individual employees feel safe and secure.
  5. Provide mental health training for all leaders and managers: on how to identify and respond to mental health issues and concerns from themselves and employees.
  6. Schedule regular one-on-one check-ins with employees: go beyond the perfunctory ‘how are you’ and ask open-ended questions to really find out what’s concerning employees and how as an employer you can support them.
  7. Signpost employees to your mental health support: ensure all employees are familiar with mental health services available within your business. 

About the author

Dr Green is Chief Clinical Officer at Kooth and a Consultant Clinical Psychologist with 20 years’ NHS experience. Previous roles include Clinical Lead for CAMHS (Lancashire Care Foundation Trust) and Lead Consultant Psychologist for children’s eating disorders and adolescent inpatient services. Prior to joining Kooth, she was Clinical Director at school-based charity Place2Be

You might also be interested in these articles:

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

Supporting Employee Mental Health In The Return To The Workplace

Key Resources to Inform Your Return to Work Strategy



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