How to Help Employees Fight Return-to-Work Anxiety in a COVID World

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While the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, people across the US are returning to work. And they are worried about it.

My company, Articulate, recently conducted a survey  of employee attitudes toward reopening, and we found that two out of three people in the US are anxious about reentering the workplace. Compounding their anxiety is the fact that they don’t know what to expect: Only one in three said their employer has shared a plan and trained them on how they will return to work safely. Local and national responses to the pandemic are also in flux, putting even more pressure on companies to reassure employees that they are taking all the necessary steps.

Here are a few ways managers and leaders can help employees transition back to the office in these uncertain times:

Name Your Employees’ Stressors

Even under the best of circumstances, stress is a reality of life. One of the simplest coping mechanisms is also one of the most powerful: identifying the emotions you’re feeling and understanding why you’re feeling them. As Marc Brackett, founder and director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, writes, “If you can name it, you can tame it.”

Business leaders can help employees recognize and label their stressors, which might range from concerns about maintaining social distance at work to worries about whether they’ll meet their sales targets in this unpredictable economy. Leaders should ask employees how they’re feeling and follow up with clarifying questions like “What’s behind that?” and “Can you tell me more about what’s making you feel that way?” Naming the root of an anxiety can go a long way toward ameliorating it.

Create a Sense of Normalcy

Establishing healthy, predictable routines can have a surprisingly big impact on how we handle stress. Routine removes the guesswork (and thus, the anxiety) from the things we do every day.

Routines make it possible for us to go through a day — wake up, eat, exercise, work, go to bed, and so on — without making an endless array of decisions. If we already know when we’ll wake up, what we’ll eat for breakfast, and when we’ll work out, there’s no anxiety about determining the best course of action for every task. Can you imagine how stressful life would be if we had no routines?

While you can’t force employees to establish routines at home, you can give them the tools they need to do their work as routinely and normally as possible. Build in predictable time for breaks. Give clear guidelines around workplace practices, especially the new ones related to maintaining health and safety. Set clear expectations on where, when, and how people need to work.

Share Calming Techniques

There are several proven ways to invite more calm into our lives, including meditation, journaling, and relaxation. These are all tools you can model as a leader and suggest to anxious employees.

Meditation involves training the mind through attention, relaxation, and awareness. While there are different ways to practice meditation, the common thread  uniting them all is the ability to reduce anxiety, combat depression, and improve cognition. Recording the small details of our lives through journaling can also help us feel more grounded and less anxious. Research suggests that journaling can help us cope with stress and make better decisions.

If your employees find these techniques too burdensome, you might suggest simple breathing exercises that can also help them manage stress.

Encourage Connections

Social distancing does not have to mean social isolation. In fact, the last thing you want is for employees to feel socially isolated, whether they’re back at the workplace or working from home. Social isolation can profoundly erode physical and mental health, so it’s important to help your employees find ways to stay connected with each other.

At Articulate, we’re a fully remote company. We have more than 500 Slack channels for almost every topic under the sun, from music, food, and books to finance, crafts, and travel. Even though there’s no water cooler, we’ve created spaces where employees can connect and talk about topics unrelated to work.

If you’re bringing people back to your workplace, it’s essential to create safe spaces for them to engage in casual ways, even if conversations happen through face masks. You might encourage people to pair with coworkers for six-feet-apart walks around your campus or neighborhood, or you could host a Zoom happy hour people can join from their socially distanced desks.

Have a Plan — and Share It

We know that people are afraid they won’t be safe when they return to work. It’s up to you, as a business leader, to quell those fears by clearly communicating the practices you’re putting in place to ensure their safety. Make sure you train every employee on the new processes, procedures, and tasks they’ll need to perform to keep themselves, their customers, and their coworkers healthy. Knowledge is not only power — it’s also comfort.

As leaders and managers, we need to recognize that we’re living in uncertain times. Our workers are under collective and individual strain. If we want them to be productive and engaged, we need to offer tools for coping with the stress and uncertainty.

Lucy Suros is the president of Articulate.

By Lucy Suros