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Returner anxiety – what is it and how can HR support those struggling with it?

As lockdowns ease across the world, many employees are anxious about going back to the workplace. It's important to understand returner anxiety and put measures in place to help, says Nick Earley

Returner anxiety – what is it and how can HR support those struggling with it?

As continued easing of lockdown restrictions permits businesses to re-open and with many of the 9.3 million UK employees on furlough schemes expected to return to work in August, the focus is shifting to returning to normal life.

However, with this has come the emergence of returner anxiety – a Covid-19 neologism that denotes the fear of exposure to the virus either in the workplace or during the commute. According to a recent survey, 65% of UK employees were anxious about going back into their place of work. It is hardly a surprise, therefore, that returner anxiety is now the main focus of most HR departments as they prepare for the ‘new normal’, but where should they begin?

Some HR managers have been toiling to create 'bubbles' that separate workforces and allow for a socially-distanced return to the office. While this will alleviate the worries of many employees, large numbers will still be fearful that after months of avoiding the Covid-19 virus at home, they now risk contracting it from colleagues or fellow commuters on public transport.

Many businesses have faced immense difficulties during the pandemic and, as individuals, we have all been through a 'mass emotional event'. Therefore, no matter the workplace, businesses need to take returner anxiety seriously and recognise that the worries and stress created by the pandemic will continue to have an impact on employees.

Returner anxiety has many different triggers

Aside from their own safety, returning staff may be worried about the welfare of friends and relatives. They may have been unable to undergo medical tests or procedures because of the virus, causing them ongoing pain or concern and, with a backlog of millions of procedures, the NHS will take a long time to catch up. Some employees may have been bereaved by the virus but unable to attend or hold funerals.

Others may be struggling with the end of lockdown, when they found working from home gave them more leisure time and cemented personal relationships.

Even those who return to the office without emotional upheaval face a continued period of global economic uncertainty, heightened by the stream of major companies announcing job losses. For most, there is little chance of being able to go on holiday to unwind. The empty football stands on TV and the absence of access to gyms and other facilities are reminders that the pre-Covid certainties no longer hold. Alongside all this is the fear of a new wave of infection.

What organisations should do to help

Businesses up and down the country will be attempting to make the transition back to the office less stressful, but how can this be done? One simple but crucial step is to ensure they are communicating clearly and consistently to reduce uncertainty. Anxiety levels will likely increase if employers repeatedly revise policies and return dates. The effect is compounded through inconsistent communication that misses some people out. Communications should be regular, reliable and consider the range of individual circumstances.

A degree of flexibility is also required to allow for adjustment. Some returning employees may find they need to re-adjust the amount of time spent in the office to allow for childcare or the care of vulnerable relatives. It is also important to maintain social contact, despite the necessary restrictions to prevent spread of the virus which may reduce the number of people in an office. Social interaction makes everyone feel part of a team and leads to greater productivity.

Taking a holistic, science-based, preventive approach

It is important too that more attention is paid to holistic wellbeing. Holistic in the sense of dealing with all aspects of each person’s mental welfare, but also addressing the entire organisation. The approach must be preventive and not reactive as is the case with many employee assistance programmes (EAPs). Although there are benefits to having EAPs in place, it must be recognised that by the time someone engages with one of these programmes, they already have a problem.

In the face of all these challenges, as employees return to their workplace, the best investment a company can make is to overhaul its wellbeing provision. Companies should no longer rely solely on reactive models. Digital platforms now provide a preventive approach that empowers everyone from CEO to entry-level personnel to understand and manage their own mental wellbeing, using science-based approaches such as cognitive behavioural therapy. Advances in the study of wellbeing mean content is informed by evidence of what is most effective, allowing employees to consume expertly-crafted, highly-engaging articles, advice, videos, animations and webinars to boost their resilience. Whether they are looking for help with diet, exercise, maternity concerns, pain management, sporting injuries or family worries, they can easily access support.

As we return to a new kind of normality, organisations will have to recognise that being on the back foot with resilience may have been costly during lockdown. If preventive, science-based programmes had been available to employees right from the start, the problems of returner anxiety in all its guises could have been reduced.

We’re certainly not free of Covid-19 yet. More periods of uncertainty and anxiety lie ahead and businesses will need evidence-based preventive techniques if they are to fully support their employees.

Nick Earley, pictured below, is head of psychology at Helix Resilience


Published 22 July 2020
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