The last fifteen months have felt more like fifteen years for many people. You may have become familiar friends with isolation and worry as the entire globe lived in uncertainty. We didn't know when things were going to end — if ever. However, it's beginning to look like our stretchy pants will be traded out for work pants! Mask mandates have either lifted or relaxed in many states as vaccination numbers continue to rise. Everyday life is reemerging. For many people, this also means a return to the workplace.
Mental Health Amidst and After COVID
Most of us likely expected to be excited for our return to a physical workplace. However, rising anxiety levels at the thought of returning to work have baffled many people. Where is this anxiety coming from? Look at it like this. Humans are biologically hardwired to interpret change as a threat to their survival. Anxiety is a mechanism our body uses to help protect us from change. Feelings like anxiety and fear are extremely helpful to avoid being eaten — not so much for returning to a once-familiar workplace. You and your employees had to adapt at the start of COVID by establishing new daily habits and schedules. Team meetings that used to be in-person suddenly became digital, and you had to wrestle with unfamiliar technology. Zoom became your best ÒfrenemyÓ as you stumbled your way through learning when to use mute buttons and how to avoid sitting near full-length mirrors. And just when you made yourself comfortable, those brand-new habits you finally settled into are changing again. It's no wonder people are experiencing a spike in anxiety. However, researchers have found that you, as an employer, are in a unique position to help reduce the negative mental health impacts of transitioning back to the workplace for yourself and your employees. You read that right. You can make a world of difference by simply being helpful and supportive leading up to and during your employees' return to work.
What should I do before I welcome my employees back?
For many, the way we work is never going to look the same. Each employee will respond differently to their return, regardless of how it may look. Everyone's experiences and perceptions are unique and will color their worldview. A young mom may need flexibility due to a lack of childcare, others may be caring for a high-risk parent, and some may not want to vaccinate but still want to be with their co-workers. It will help if you have a return-to-work plan. Develop a strategy with your employees that will work for the whole office.
How are you going to handle the return to work?
Consider your options:
- Complete Office Return — Everyone returns in-person and carries on
- Hybrid* — Some employees work in-person, some work remote, and others may do both
- Remote — You and your employees continue to work remotely
*If you choose to pursue a hybrid office environment, it's wise to set up a formal policy to decide who will work remotely and who won't, so if an employee's request is denied, they will understand why.
How are you going to bring people back?
Will you welcome everyone back all at once? Or will you implement a slower, phased return? There is no correct answer to this question. Your answer may vary based upon your business, your employees, and the needs of each.
Work with your employees to create a return-to-work timeline.
Ensure employees understand what is expected of them when they return to work and work with them to establish a timeline. By establishing a two-way dialogue, you show your employees you care for them and respect what they have to say. Examples of a two-way dialogue include:
- Open Forums
Have a game plan for how you will handle common concerns.
There are common concerns that will probably arise during a two-way dialogue with your employees. If you establish solutions and answers for these concerns beforehand, you will save time and worry later. Some common concerns others have reported are:
- Worry of increased COVID cases after returning to the office.
- A lack of childcare if the facilities are slower to reopen.
- Living with or caring for high-risk individuals.
Familiarize yourself with vaccine guidelines.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has determined you can ask an employee whether they have been vaccinated or not. However, once you have their answer, it is protected under HIPAA and cannot be shared with others. Additionally, the ADA requires that all medical information related to an employee's health information be stored and maintained separately from the employee's HR file. You can read more about employee vaccination here.
Tips for Giving Your Employees a Warm Welcome
When you welcome your employees back, focus on making it a genuine welcome. As we used programs like Zoom during the height of COVID, we had an intimate view of people's lives. Coworkers became human as we quietly saw them interact with their pets, play with their children, and participate in meetings from their kitchen table. You could argue we became more interconnected because of COVID, even if we weren't sitting face-to-face. Carry this trend of interconnectedness on by warmly welcoming your employees back. The following tips can help you as you begin the transition back to pre-COVID life.
- Emphasize mental health — COVID was an incredibly tumultuous time, and the nation's collective mental health reached an all-time low. Support your employees as they go through the long recovery process and be an anchor for them.
- Remain empathetic — Just because we don't have to wear masks anymore doesn't mean everything is over. People's lives have changed, just like yours. Remain understanding and empathetic to your employee's personal struggles.
- Stay agile — don't expect life to return immediately to pre-COVID standards. Many employees have found they are more productive and more comfortable working remotely. You learned to be flexible with work, and it's okay to stay flexible.
- Celebrate — many of your employees are seeing each other in person for the first time in months. That's exciting! By setting aside time to celebrate, you can re-energize your employees and get them ready to tackle new challenges.
- Remind — for employees who haven't been in a formal office for upwards of a year, it may be helpful to send an email with refreshers on business policy. This is also an excellent time to include any new safety and health policies that may have been introduced during the pandemic.
Remember, reopening your business after the pandemic isn't as simple as opening your doors. Your next step is more of a multi-phase project and may seem daunting, but we're here to help every step of the way. Reach out to your Leavitt Group insurance advisor today to learn what actions you need to take to ensure your employees' return to work is as seamless as possible.