People typically don’t like change, and the past year and a half has been nothing but change. We didn’t like the changes to our lives when the pandemic hit, and now we don’t like the changes as we are starting to return to work. But reentry is actually far more complicated than leaving ever was.
Companies are working to change their environments by deciding on new models, whether that’s continuing with remote work, requiring employees to return to the office or some combination of both (i.e. hybrid).
In order to keep their employees safe, leaders are considering scheduling changes, reconfiguring office spaces to allow for social distancing, addressing visitor and food policies and more. But they should also be taking into account the mental health of their workers.
Most people experience anxiety and resistance when there is a need for change. And while some people may think we’ll go back to the way things were before the pandemic, for most of us, it will not be the same. There’s a complexity surrounding the emotional and psychological support of workers that needs to be addressed in reentry plans. Since no one has done this before, no one really knows how to do it well.
Meanwhile, anxiety is at an all-time high. A national survey by Weber Shandwick and KRC Research shows that nearly half of employees are worried that employers will make them return to work before it is safe to do so. More than half are worried about the future of their company, and their job specifically.
I’ve had coaching clients recently express to me their concerns over:
- How safe their workplace will be
- How productive they will be in the office
- Feelings of increased stress
- The cost of going back to work, both financially and with time considerations
- The Delta variant and possible future variants considering the low rate of vaccinations in the country
- Co-workers who don’t share their views on the pandemic and health safety measures
- Possible protocols at work regarding mask mandates, mandatory vaccination and who will police this
There’s also anxiety around whether to look for a new job if you don’t want to return to the office and remote work is not an option. An April 2021 survey by FlexJobs found that 60% of women and 52% of men would quit their jobs if they were not allowed to continue working remotely at least some of the time.
Many people have established routines and lifestyle changes that they now prize in their work from home life, whether that’s increased productivity, regular exercise, or spending more time with family. They feel like they would be giving up a lot in order to go back to work, so they may be forced to look for other remote alternatives. Considering a career change at any time can be stressful, but it’s especially hard right now during our volatile economic climate.
Help Reduce Anxiety
Even though not much focus is currently being given to the individual’s mental well-being as they return to work, we can change that by incorporating it into reentry plans. Here are some core areas that company leaders should target:
- Make employees’ well-being your number one priority. People need reassurance, especially right now during these difficult times. The survey shows 72-percent of workers feel that their employer is putting safety above profits. Continue to demonstrate that commitment to your workers through your actions.
- Communication is key to managing anxiety. Research shows that employees who receive regular updates from their employer have a more positive view of the company so communicate frequently and accurately.
- Follow the science. Companies should follow public health guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and inform employees how and when measures will be implemented, monitored and enforced.
- Train your people. This is a good time to level up your training programs, perhaps with outsourced coaching help, to include guidance on how to lead hybrid teams and manage well-being, including being able to recognize the signs of emotional distress.
- Be flexible. Now is the time to listen to individual employee needs, not make far-reaching rigid policies. Be generous with and encourage people to take time off. LinkedIn and HubSpot both gave all of their employees one week off this year, not tied to any other time off request. By making sure everyone took the same time off, there were no emails and meeting requests piling up in the absence.
- Choose the right health insurance plan. If you have the opportunity to change company health insurance plans, make a concerted effort to look for generous mental health components.
- Educate yourself on the ROI of mental fitness in the workplace. When someone is anxious, it affects their capacity to be effective and efficient at work. Anxiety contributes to lack of focus, disengagement, fatigue, poor executive functioning, procrastination, ineffective communication and increase in self-medication whether that is drugs, alcohol, tobacco or even binge-watching Netflix. This lack of performance directly affects the company’s bottom line.
How to Support Mental Fitness in the Workplace
So, how can you help your workplace become mentally fit?
The first step is to help them recognize the emotional state they are in. By simply identifying and naming it, you lessen it. You are able to take a step back from the situation, remove some of the emotion and perhaps reframe the perspective with a different lens.
This step in building emotional intelligence also brings a sense of control to the situation. We tend to worry, or ruminate, but that habitual way of thinking is ineffective. It doesn’t move us toward a solution that makes us feel in control. Instead, focus on the things that you can control instead of what you cannot control. Empower yourself to take action on what you can do to manage your anxiety and stress.
If you cannot control something, breathe through it and let go. Diaphragmatic breathing calms down the racing mind and has an amazing impact on the body. When you start to feel stressed, take two minutes for this exercise:
- Sit in a comfortable position. Lying down or sitting again a wall works as well.
- Breathe in through your nose, concentrating on filling your belly completely with air.
- Hold your breath for a count of six and exhale slowly through your mouth.
- Repeat until you feel your body relax and your tension is release.
Take this one step further with meditation. When you meditate, you are strengthening your prefrontal cortex, which is your rational brain – it allows you to think through situations and process things more effectively while reducing your heightened fight or flight responses. Meditation and diaphragmatic breathing is a one-two punch for managing anxiety and building resilience.
Having a resilient workforce is more important now than ever before. There will be more disruption as we continue to see the pandemic situation change this year, and it’s not going to go away anytime soon. Now is the time to demonstrate agility and adaptability in your leadership.
While leaders craft reentry plans, it’s important to keep the psychological health of employees at top of mind. Not only will helping them deal with stress and anxiety affect your company’s bottom line, but it’s simply the right thing to do. Paying attention to all aspects of employee well-being will have positive consequences for years to come.