When the pandemic hit and workplaces closed their doors in March 2020, no one knew when they would re-open. But with lockdown restrictions easing in the UK and millions of people receiving a Covid-19 vaccine each day, it seems we are on the precipice of being free to live and work as we once knew.

However, for many people, this does not bring the sense of relief you might expect. There is a sense of discomfort with the uncertainty of what is ahead and for those who have worked from the same four walls of their home for over a year, the thought of returning to the office has triggered or enhanced feelings of anxiety.

What are employees feeling anxious about?

As I speak to organisations up and down the UK, it occurs to me that there are two main types of anxiety manifesting. Firstly, people are feeling anxious about social situations and needing to do things they have not had to do in a while. They are worried about reacclimating to a social life outside of the home, they are worried about how to interact with groups of people – whether that be colleagues or friends – and those who have had the privilege of working from home are worried about commuting in big crowds again or finding themselves in social situations they cannot escape from. Likewise, the managers preparing to receive them back may have been working flat out and not have too much empathy towards their situation.

As mentally and physically draining as the new, virtual, way of working has been, many people are now feeling at-home in the process. Liaising via a screen has its advantages – notes, resources and answers are available at the touch of a button – but it has left many people feeling uncomfortable and nervous about interacting face-to-face with colleagues and clients. Plus, some employees – especially those who are medically vulnerable or have been shielding – are concerned about how Covid-secure their working environment will be.

The second category I have noticed is the anxiety of returning to a ‘normal’ people would rather not go back to. Despite its considerable challenges, the Covid-19 pandemic has proven that remote and flexible working is feasible in many industries. Some people feel they have been given the gift of time; axing the commute, working without interruptions, and completing work flexibly has helped many achieve a healthy work-life balance, some for the first time ever. There is certainly a worry about how people will manage their responsibilities when they do not have the flexibility of home working.

Lockdown has validated people’s long-formed suspicions that the 9-5 model of work, which has often forced people to choose between their career and their home-life, is completely unjust. It has demonstrated to some reluctant employers that people can be trusted to deliver and excel on their own terms. But it has also highlighted weaknesses in manager capability.

The period out of the office has evoked a sense of self for many and people have re-evaluated what’s really important in their lives – what is beneficial to them and what isn’t. Indeed, there is concern that as soon as the doors to the world are fully open, the sense of support and community felt over the past year will disappear and people will each be facing the challenges of the workplace alone.

How to support employees with social anxiety

Anxiety is a completely normal reaction to the incredibly abnormal situation we’ve all experienced with the Covid-19 pandemic. Employers and HR professionals, working in-house and as HR consultants, have an essential role to play in preparing employees and line managers for their eventual return to work. Indeed, every employer has a duty of care for everyone in their workforce. Here are just a few ways you can support employees on their transition back into the workplace.

  • Identify individual concerns: Prepare managers to book in 1-2-1 ‘return to work’ discussions with employees before they return to the office with the objective of identifying areas of concern. Pinpointing these concerns will make it easier to implement the appropriate support.
  • Normalise and accept anxiety in the workplace: There is a good chance you have always been close to people with anxiety. Study after study is showing that anxiety is on the increase and anyone – no matter what their seniority in the business – can experience it. Be aware that those who had no issues with anxiety in the pre-pandemic world, may now be dealing with its challenges. Try to encourage the businesses’ leaders and managers to normalise talking about mental health and share their own concerns and vulnerabilities.
  • Phase returns and flexible hours: If possible, consider phasing the return of employees back into the workplace. This will help alleviate anxiety for those worried about being amongst large groups of people and those who have been shielding. Empower employees with choice by giving them flexibility in their start and finish times. This will also enable people to commute at quieter times and reduce the stress of travelling amongst crowds.
  • Offer employees additional support and tailor support plans: Consider introducing employee assistance programmes or no questions asked access to counselling or talking therapies. The key is also to recognise that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to mental health in the workplace. Discuss individual needs with every employee in the workplace and make reasonable adjustments to support them.

How to encourage an open dialogue with employees

Sally Tribe, PTS Corporate Clinical Lead at Vita Health Group, believes the HR profession has a key role to play in helping anxious employees return to the workplace after lockdown.

She explains, “the key here is having an open dialogue between the employee and the line manager. Whatever their concern, avoid passing any judgement. Each employee will have their own specific concerns and feeling worried is understandable in a situation that is far from certain. Work together to create a collaborative action plan. In doing so, you can decide together what the employee may need to do to make their return to work less anxiety provoking. If you feel the issue cannot be fixed through collaborative discussion or self-help, then encourage them to seek professional help early on to ensure this doesn’t turn into something bigger.”

It is widely acknowledged that one of the long-term impacts of Covid-19 will be on our mental health. For many, emerging from the pandemic is a positive and uplifting time, providing the opportunity to socialise, see family and friends and get back to normality. But it will be a stressful time for many, and people will be suffering from the strain of social anxiety, only heightened by the pressure of returning to the workplace. As a business, you must be aware that every individual will be experiencing different emotions and to maintain a happy and productive workforce you must facilitate a return to the workplace which is supportive and empathetic.