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Manage the return to the office with compassionate leadership

(Image credit: Image Credit: NakoPhotography / Shutterstock)

As the lockdown lifts, businesses are thinking about bringing staff back to the office. This brings a fresh set of concerns: a recent survey by Bupa Health Clinics revealed over six in ten Brits (65 percent) are anxious about returning to their workplace (Source 1).

There are multiple psychological factors at play - interacting with colleagues again, coming to terms with a new socially distanced office and feeling apprehensive about commuting on public transport. These add to existing concerns people have around the health of family and friends, financial security and childcare issues.

Business leaders need to recognize the many factors affecting their workforce’s mental wellbeing and do all they can to ensure employees feel comfortable with returning to the office.

Understanding challenges

Employees returning to the office will be facing a very different environment. Change is always difficult, especially as a recent survey revealed that only 18 percent of Brits prefer the physical working environment to the home, so leaders should understand the impact the transition could have on employee wellbeing and overall morale. (Source 2)

Workers will need to adjust to a new routine, familiarize themselves with a dramatically changed office space to meet social distancing rules, and get used to interacting with colleagues in a way that will inevitably feel more controlled and restricted. Fear of the disease will also be a consideration, with people feeling anxious about the risks of coming into contact with their colleagues.

In confronting these issues, showing flexibility will be crucial – whether that’s allowing employees to change their working hours or adapting so that those most reliant on public transport have the option to continue to work remotely or adjusted hours.

This is especially the case in industries such as the technology sector, where working from home has been a proven success – demonstrated by some leading companies committing to remote working “forever”. (Source 3) This won’t be possible or realistic for many firms, but leaders should avoid rushing workers back to the office before they are ready, as this could increase stress and anxiety levels and damage employee morale. They should also consider permanently altering working structures to continue giving people freedom and flexibility.

Communication is key

As employees return to work, organizations will need to cultivate the right kind of leadership by showing transparency, compassion, and understanding. A crucial part of demonstrating all three qualities is communicating openly and honestly with employees as the uncertainty persists.

With the situation changing rapidly, businesses must strive to keep workers up to date with changes to company practices and policies and how social distancing in offices will work moving forward.

This can be done by scheduling regular company meetings containing vital status updates on the return to the office and furloughed staff members. Preparing workers for the return to the office may be difficult when leaders are still working through details but keeping staff up to date with plans will provide much-needed stability and reassurance.

Managers should continue to set up team check-ins, involving those in the office and continuing to work remotely, and actively seek to identify any unsaid signs of stress and anxiety. At Headspace, one of the ways we do this is through a combination of short stand-up sessions and “good morning” chats, which allow teams to feel informed and emotionally connected.

Leaders should also encourage employees to share how they’re feeling - whether they’re worried about the return to the office, struggling with workloads, or if they’re concerned about job security. Even during the best of times, giving someone wholly undivided attention at can be difficult, but leaders should make this a priority and take a patient and understanding attitude towards staff who do come forward with anxieties. 

Should employers notice any signs of stress, they should ensure they’re equipped with workplace wellbeing tools to share with colleagues and understand how techniques such as mindfulness and meditation can help in alleviating stress and anxiety.

A mindful approach

While mindfulness and meditation cannot simply erase the challenges the return to the office brings, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that they are important in managing stress and anxiety, as well as supporting employee morale and productivity – inside and outside the office. Studies have shown using mindfulness for 30 days reduced stress by a third (32 percent) and improves focus by 14 percent. (Source 4) (Source 5)

Alongside these benefits, meditation can help individuals experience a greater sense of flow from one moment to another and learn to be more comfortable with change – such as coming to terms with a new, socially-distanced workspace. By encouraging employees to think more mindfully, leaders can help them learn to be more comfortable with the unknown, feel more relaxed about changed working environments and learn to take each day as it comes.

Mindfulness isn’t a difficult or time-consuming process. It can be as simple as taking a couple of minutes to breathe, reset and regain perspective. Managers could even encourage workforces to practice mindfulness whilst on their commute to and from the office, helping employees arrive at and leave work with a sense of calm and clarity, settling nerves and potentially assisting them in unwinding at the end of a busy day.

Clearly, mindfulness should form part of long-term initiatives for improving mental health in the workplace and beyond. By practicing mindfulness and meditation, business professionals and employers can manage the transition back to work more easily, become more aware of their stress levels and cultivate a healthier mind altogether.

Headspace has made some of its resources for businesses accessible for free as well as launching a specially curated “Weathering the Storm” collection of meditation and mindfulness content to help individuals find some space and kindness for themselves, and those around them.

James McErlean, GM, Headspace for Work