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Easing the stress of returning to work as Covid-19 lockdowns ease

Following the roadmap set out by Boris Johnson a few weeks back, the UK could potentially be restriction-free by 21st June and businesses and organisations are preparing to resume ‘normal’ operations, including welcoming back their workforces.

Some employees may be returning after working from home for over a year, while others may be returning from furlough, having not worked at all for a year.

As an employer, it’s important to be aware that these varying experiences are likely to have caused some employees stress, anxiety, feelings of loneliness and they may find returning to the workplace quite overwhelming.

Some employees may be introverts who haven’t really been bothered by the changes which have happened due to the pandemic. In fact, staying at home, working remotely and being able to keep themselves to themselves might be just what they’ve been wanting all along.

However, other employees, who are very sociable and outgoing may feel as though they’ve had their world turned upside down in the past year. They may have been furloughed, worrying about finances, unable to see friends and family – the complete opposite to what they were used to previously.

Employers and managers should be very considerate of the fact that everyone responds differently to situations like the one we’ve all been thrown in. When everyone has returned to the workplace, you may have a team made up of two extremes – those who are excited for life to return to normal and those who are anxious about being in a large group of people, away from their ‘safe place’ i.e. their home.

How can you reduce this stress and anxiety for your employees?

Although we’re all in a similar boat here, employers and managers in particular need to make themselves available to their team members. This can include making yourself approachable for a colleague to ask for a chat if they’re struggling, being aware of those who may be finding it harder to get back into the groove of things or even just passing regular words of encouragement such as “it’s good to have you all back”.

Communication is key

For those employees who are anxious about returning from a safety perspective, providing regular communication is important. Make sure everyone is aware about procedures that are in place to protect everyone. Regular team meetings are a great way to provide employees with the opportunity to share their concerns but also any ideas that they may have.

Encourage your team to be a team again

After a long period of working separately and being unable to socialise in our usual way, a lot of people may feel that they have lost some of their social skills. Introduce some team building exercises to help everyone feel at ease, get back into the swing of things and learn to laugh together again. After all, a happy, social team is much better than a group of people who don’t feel as though they can bounce ideas back and forth.

Look out for subtle changes in behaviour

Upon returning to the workplace, you may notice some subtle changes in behaviour in some members of your team – these are the people that you may want to just pull aside and check that everything is ok.

Things to look out for include:

  • Decreased productivity – this could mean that they’re just struggling to adjust to a full working week, or working with an office full of people, but it could also mean that their mental health isn’t great, and they could need some extra support. It doesn’t hurt to ask!
  • Changes in appearance – no, we don’t mean dodgy hair styles from the attempts at cutting our own hair, but more so someone who used to be very well presented who may not be taking quite as good care of themselves. Neglected appearance and poor hygiene can be signs and symptoms of depression.
  • Changes in personality – someone who was previously very social and outgoing may now appear quiet and withdrawn.
  • Changes in attitude – you may notice someone acting uncharacteristically irritable or someone who may be struggling to cooperate with others.

CIPD state on their website that some of the typical signs and symptoms of poor or declining mental health include:

  • Working long hours or not taking breaks
  • Increased sickness absence or lateness
  • Mood changes
  • Distraction, indecision or confusion
  • Withdrawal
  • Irritability, anger or aggression
  • Uncharacteristic performance issues
  • Over-reaction to problems or issues
  • Disruptive or anti-social behaviour

However, if one or more of these signs are observed, it does not automatically mean that an individual is experiencing poor mental health but it should be a prompt for a manager to have a wellbeing conversation – just take care not to make any assumptions.

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