A HR Professional’s Take On Coping With Return-to-office Anxiety
As the great WFH debate continues, more UK employers are pushing for workers to come back to the office. On one side of the argument, employees claim that working from home allows them to be more productive whilst enjoying greater autonomy. On the other side, prominent figures such as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson claim that remote workers are too vulnerable to distractions such as cheese and coffee to get any real work done, and that it can have a detrimental impact on teamwork and collaboration. Caught in the middle are employees who’ve been working from home for the past couple of years due to circumstances beyond their control, and are now being asked to venture back to a working environment that feels new and unfamiliar.
After so long only seeing co-workers on teams calls, the idea of suddenly being bombarded with in-person interaction once again can be frightening and overwhelming. Although 90% of employers are now allowing hybrid work schedules, if you’ve been away from the office for two years, even venturing in a couple of days a week can be enough to send you spiralling into anxiety. Similarly, employers might also be feeling nervous about welcoming their team back after such a lengthy absence, and have questions about how they can ensure it’s as positive an experience as possible. To explore this topic in more depth, we spoke with our HR business partner Charlotte Quick to get her top tips for handling back-to-work anxiety from both perspectives.
Making a smooth transition back to the office as an employee
“Feeling worried about returning to the office isn’t uncommon,” explains Charlotte, “it’s a natural response to change and uncertainty, and if you’ve been working from home for an extended time period, it’s to be expected. However, there are some things you can do to make the transition a little easier.”
Talk about it
“Ask your colleagues how they’re feeling about returning to work – they might be experiencing some level of anxiety too, which can help you to feel less alone. It can also be very helpful to have a catch-up with your manager to communicate your feelings. Hopefully, they’ll then be mindful of keeping stress to a minimum once you’re back in the office, and will look for ways to make being back together a positive experience. You should also speak with your manager about the work schedule that will suit you best going forward.”
Think about the positives
“Try to remember everything you enjoyed about being in the office, whether it was a walk you took at lunchtime, a café you liked to visit, or feeling energised by in-person collaboration. Write all these things down if you’re able, as it will help to focus your mind on everything you used to enjoy, rather than focusing on what seems scary and different.”
“Although you can’t anticipate everything that will happen once you transition back into the office, there are many things that are within your control. Ensure you have your outfit prepped beforehand, plan what you’ll be doing for lunch, and check what the traffic will be like on your journey in so you’re not stressing about being late. Be sure not to plan too many meetings, and take your full lunch break. All of these measures can help you to take back control and reduce stress levels.”
Ask for support
“If you really find you’re struggling with returning to work after a couple of weeks, don’t be scared to ask for extra support. Reach out to your line manager or HR department and see if your organisation can offer support from occupational health or an employee assistance programme (EAP). They may also be able to suggest additional measures that will make the transition more comfortable, such as phasing in your return to work gradually if possible.”
How employers can help
“The key thing for employers is to understand and anticipate that people will be experiencing anxiety about returning to work, and not to minimise or brush off these feelings. It’s also important to put proper measures and strategies in place to ensure team members feel as happy and comfortable as possible,” Charlotte explains.
“When people have clear guidance, this often mitigates a lot of anxiety as they understand what to expect from their employer and what their employer expects of them. Line managers should be briefed on any planned changes to working arrangements as far in advance as possible and encouraged to discuss with this with team members, so that everyone is able to fully prepare themselves to return to work.”
Provide plenty of info
“Providing line managers with a Q and A document containing questions you think may arise from return-to-work communications can be extremely helpful, as this will ensure all questions can be answered promptly and thoroughly. If any team members have concerns, encourage them to discuss with their line manager or HR, so you can provide further support where it’s needed.”
Introduce extra support measures
“Encourage line managers to hold regular team meetings to gauge the general mood within their teams, as well as to hold regular one-to-ones with each individual to keep a close eye on how everyone’s feeling. On top of this, it’s important to check your employee assistance programme (EAP) to ensure that you’re offering mental health support should team members need it, as well as initiate measures to keep people talking and to encourage socialising between colleagues. It’s also important to consider any team members who you believe may be especially anxious about returning to work, and think about any reasonable adjustments you may need to consider.”
“Although there may be some practical reasons it makes sense for employees to be back in the office, it’s a good move to consider if roles can be completed successfully on a hybrid or flexible basis moving forward. A recent study revealed that nearly half of UK professionals would like to continue working remotely in some capacity, so it’s vital from an employee retention perspective to try to consider how this is achievable.”
As the working landscape appears to be changing for good, research suggests that most UK workers would opt for a hybrid schedule if given the choice, with schedule flexibility being a top priority. Ultimately, what’s most important is that you’re happy and comfortable with the working arrangement that your employer is suggesting, and that you’ve raised any concerns you have with your line manager or HR department. If you find your workplace is being inflexible about working arrangements, it’s important to remember that you have options. Whether you’re looking for a position that’s totally office based, hybrid, or remote, start by reaching out to a trusted recruitment partner, who will be best placed to help find you a position that accommodates your needs.
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