How To Help Employees Feeling Anxiety About Returning to Work
By: Mady Peterson
As employees head back to physical offices after more than a year of social distancing and video calls, trust and communication are essential for organizations looking to ease anxiety about returning to work.
Research from the Limeade Institute confirms how drastically life has changed for office workers. In a survey of 4,553 global employees, only 6% of participants worked from home before the pandemic. Now 39% are working from home. Meanwhile, the percentage of employees who were onsite has dropped from 78% to 37%. With such a dramatic shift in their work environments, it’s no wonder that employees are feeling the stress of making another big transition during still-uncertain times.
Why your employees feel anxiety about returning to work
Employees said their biggest source of return to work anxiety (77%) was exposure to COVID-19. (The survey was conducted in early 2021, when the vaccine rollout was just beginning in the U.S.) The next two concerns were less flexibility (71%) and commuting (68%), followed by wearing a mask and the need for childcare. Not a single employee — across 17 industries in 5 countries — said they had zero worries about being back onsite. This indicates a baseline level of anxiety that organizations should recognize and plan for as they’re communicating post-COVID protocols.
The Limeade survey also asked employees about their top overall sources of stress for 2021. Tied for the top spot were health & safety and economic security. Nearly half of the participants flagged political polarization as a concern, and 23% of the group identified racial injustice as a top stressor for the year ahead.
When looking just at respondents who identified as Black or African American, 51% of this group said racial injustice was their biggest source of stress. This number was just 19% for participants identifying as white. This data underscores the importance of recognizing how employees’ individual identities affect the way they’re processing current events as part of their overall mental load.
Ease return to work anxiety by keeping what worked during the pandemic
The major changes brought on by the pandemic have created a unique opportunity for organizations. Instead of a hasty restoration of pre-COVID norms, leaders should take stock of what worked well during the pandemic and can be maintained in some form going forward. For example, 47% of employees said they experienced increased flexibility in their work schedules during 2020.
When taken with employees’ high anxiety about losing flexibility in returning to the office, the survey results indicate that flexibility is key for employee well-being. In fact, when asked which aspect of their work life they wanted to keep in 2021, 68% of employees said flexibility in work schedules — handily surpassing other options, such as the amount of meetings or social connection with peers.
The findings also indicate that managers don’t have to make a hard trade-off between flexibility and productivity, since 39% of employees said their productivity went up during 2020. Only 19% reported decreased productivity. However, finding the right balance between flexibility and bringing workers back to the office does require a deeper dive into the optimal conditions for doing focused work. Only 54% of employees said their current physical space helps them thrive, and the same percentage said they’d like to maintain the amount of time spent working from home. This suggests that there are many employees for whom their homes were not the best places for them to be productive — at least not during the survival-mode mentality of the pandemic, when they had to adapt very quickly to new conditions.
If your organization stumbled during the pandemic, now’s the time to show care
A crucial challenge and opportunity for leaders in shaping their return to in-person work is building trust and two-way communication with their employees. Only 16% of employees “strongly agreed” that their organization cared about them, down sharply from 31% in a similar survey in March 2020. Employees felt much more supported by their peers than by their managers or their organization’s leaders. There was also a significant gap in sentiment between managers and less senior employees, with those at a management level or above reporting feeling higher levels of support than individual contributors.
Employees also feel ignored by decision-makers at their organizations. Though 35% of employees said they are feeling burned out, 60% said their workplaces don’t discuss the topic. More than half of employees said they hadn’t been asked for feedback about return-to-work policies. And even at organizations that used surveys for gathering feedback, the results are disappointing: 45% of employees said their workplaces did not take noticeable action based on the information collected in such surveys.
The opportunity facing leaders is to craft return-to-work policies that take employee feedback into account in tangible ways and address anxieties about being back in a traditional office setting. Employee surveys can be an effective way to gather this feedback and give individual contributors a meaningful way to shape their post-COVID work lives, especially when it comes to flexible schedules and staying engaged to avoid burnout.
As workers return to their offices, it might be easy to spot the enhanced safety and cleaning protocols that organizations have put into place for people’s physical health. But looking after employees’ whole person well-being means leaders have to be equally clear about cultural norms and company policies that shape how workers feel about their jobs. Communicating these expectations, especially if they’re crafted in response to employee feedback, can go a long way toward managing anxiety about returning to work and the transition to a new normal.
To amplify your organization’s commitment to employee care, learn about the Limeade EX solution. It’s good for people and for business.