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How to help employees overcome return-to-work anxiety

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, many workplaces are transitioning from remote work back to an in-office setup. One New York-based study found employers in every industry reported an increase in office occupancy between May and August of this year.

While some companies are now pushing back their return-to-work plans because of the case surge brought on by the Delta variant, it’s never too soon to start helping your employees prepare for a return to the workplace.

For many people, the transition back to in-office work is likely to be a bumpy one. One multi-country study found 100 percent of surveyed employees who had been working remotely due to the pandemic reported feeling anxious about a return to the office.

It’s imperative for managers to be sensitive, accommodating, and proactive as team members navigate the latest workplace shake-up. Here’s how to smooth the transition.

How to help employees overcome return-to-work anxiety

The uncertainties of returning to work

Many offices are experiencing uncertainty around return to work, and several factors play a part.

For starters, many workplaces are basing their return plans on new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, which vary by region. And because these numbers are always in flux, companies may need to update their plans as the data changes.

Because of the changing circumstances around COVID-19, many companies are postponing their return-to-work plans. In the August 2021 Manhattan-based study cited above, 44 percent of employers reported delaying returning to the office due to the Delta variant’s rise, while two percent were uncertain about whether to delay. At the time of the survey, less than a quarter (23 percent) of office workers in Manhattan were back in the workplace, and employers expected 41 percent would return by September 30. That’s a decrease from May estimates of 62 percent.

Partly due to the challenges (or outright impossibility) of a full return, many offices are embracing hybrid work models. In a July CNBC survey, 45 percent of employers nationwide planned to use a hybrid work model in the second half of 2021.

Even if employees aren’t returning to the office full-time, hybrid work structures can provoke their own uncertainties. For instance, team members may feel unsure about work processes and expectations, and they will likely have concerns about returning to the office in any capacity. Those concerns may be magnified in workplaces that return to in-person work full time.

The biggest anxieties about returning to work

Every person’s life and work situation are different, so each team member will have their own unique set of concerns about returning to the workplace. But that’s not to say there won’t be commonalities within your team.

In a multi-country study conducted by the Limeade Institute, a whopping 100 percent of employees who were working remotely because of the pandemic said they were anxious about returning to the office. That’s 4,553 people from five different countries.

What has people feeling so anxious? The Limeade Institute’s survey participants listed these as their top reasons:

  • 77 percent were afraid of being exposed to COVID-19.
  • 71 percent were anxious about having less flexibility.
  • 68 percent were nervous about having to wear a mask.
  • 22 percent were anxious about needing childcare.
  • 7 percent listed other concerns.

These fears speak to real and pressing concerns in team members’ lives, and it’s critical for workplaces to draft return-to-work plans that accommodate team members and enable them to look after their own wellbeing. In the next section, we’ll detail some sound strategies for doing just that.

How to help employees overcome return-to-work anxiety

How to help reduce employees’ return-to-work anxiety

Wondering how you can support team members and ease their anxiety as they head back to the office? Here are some guidelines to get you started.

Ask for employees’ preferences about returning to work.

Team members should have a say in how their lives unfold during a pandemic, and it’s critical to make return-to-work decisions that take employees’ needs, preferences, and concerns into account. Yet in Limeade’s survey, 56 percent of respondents reported their organization had not solicited their feedback about return-to-work policies.

Not only is inviting team members’ participation the right thing to do, but failing to do so is a surefire way to deplete morale, which can tank engagement and productivity and provoke turnover. In fact, research from FlexJobs found that 58 percent of surveyed workers said they would “absolutely” look for a new job if their current one doesn’t allow them to continue working remotely.

Solicit team members’ feedback anonymously so they feel free to share their honest perspectives. Take this feedback to heart and maintain open lines of communication as planning unfolds. If team members strongly prefer a hybrid or remote work environment, it’s worth considering. A May 2021 survey found hybrid setups can increase employee engagement and productivity, so this could be a win-win for everyone.

Once you determine your return-to-work plans, overcommunicate them.

Transparency is the name of the game here. Clearly outline the new return-to-work plans and communicate about them in person, during live virtual meetings, and in writing. Consider hosting virtual Q&A sessions so team members have an outlet to ask questions and express concerns. Once again, make sure leadership earnestly takes this feedback into account.

If the plans need to change for any reason, even slightly, keep employees in the loop. As part of those plans, be sure to provide every team member with ample cleaning supplies and a supply of face masks

Detail your office’s COVID-19 cleaning and mitigation plans.

As the research has shown, employees’ primary return-to-work anxiety is (understandably) the fear of contracting COVID-19. This is a serious and potentially fatal illness, and it’s important for every workplace to mitigate its spread. To that end, make sure your office has detailed plans for cleaning and mitigation, and communicate these plans clearly. Here’s a guide to deep cleaning and disinfecting an office to get you started.

Highlight the positive aspects of returning to work.

We’re not advocating for toxic positivity here, but there could be value in highlighting the perks that come along with returning to the office to work. From company-sponsored lunches to team bonding and getting to use an actual whiteboard during brainstorming sessions, some things are gained by returning to the office. Help team members feel optimistic by decking out the office with all the equipment they need to do their jobs well and comfortably—think ergonomic desk chairs, a fridge stocked with healthy snacks, closets loaded with worker-friendly office supplies, and so on.

How to help employees overcome return-to-work anxiety

Offer as much flexibility as possible.

From child and elder care to household chores and errands, many workers have fitted their lives around working from home for the past year or longer. A return to the office could be highly disruptive to their new lifestyle. Additionally, any potential COVID-19 exposure, either at work or elsewhere, will require time to quarantine. So it’s important to offer team members flexibility and understanding.

Here are some examples of flexibility in action:

  • Consider a hybrid model so team members can still work from home some of the time.
  • Encourage team members to work from home if schools close or a child needs to quarantine.
  • Offer paid home-care days for employees who need to care for sick children or relatives.
  • And offer paid time off for anyone who contracts or is exposed to COVID-19

Provide access to an employee assistance program, or EAP.

An EAP is a workplace-sponsored offering that’s meant to support team members in resolving personal challenges that may be unintentionally hindering their job performance. This support is extended at no cost to employees and may include everything from nurse advice lines to legal assistance, adoption assistance, counseling, and referrals. Right now, it’s especially helpful to look for a program that offers mental health benefits that will help employees cope with anxiety.


Even if you implement all the suggestions above, the work of caring for team members isn’t over.

COVID-19 is always evolving, and so are team members’ related needs and concerns. Make sure to pay attention to feedback from team members and note signs that individuals (or the team as a whole) are struggling. Then take compassionate action to ensure team members feel safe and empowered on the job.

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