The emotional challenges of returning to work


Many business leaders have been planning for a safe return to their physical work environment. However, much of that focus has been on tangible elements. With the COVID-19 pandemic taking a toll on employees, there needs to be a shift to planning for the emotional challenges employees will face.

The emotional challenges ahead

Part of the challenge of going back to work amid the COVID-19 pandemic, is that there’s still much uncertainty. As a result, the main focus has been on the physical and logistical elements of reopening your business confidently. Leaving little discussion about the emotional challenges of returning to work during this ‘new normal’.

Wellfleet Workplace has partnered with leadership consultants, Jennifer Browne and Jennifer Webster of OneBody3, to help provide tips on the emotional challenges that need to be considered when returning to work.

According to Jennifer Browne, “we’ve taken the time to assess, measure and implement controls for a safe physical environment. However, we still need to plan for how our employees can feel safe in the relationships they have with one another.“

In today’s environment, employees are juggling multiple responsibilities outside of work. They’re managing care for their parents, children or even disabled relatives. Unfortunately, caregiving during this time can be especially challenging because help is at a premium. Day cares, community agencies and medical offices are closed or have reduced hours and staffing. Scenarios like this are creating stressors that can affect their emotional and physical well-being.

That’s why Jennifer Webster says, “it’s so important to ensure that the new work environment embraces a culture of empathy and connection. Employees need to feel safe, emotionally.

“They need to be able to let down their guard, so that they can be productive and continue to make strong, healthy connections with one another.”

How do we get there?

Business leaders need to be thinking about their staff and how their ‘new normal’ routine will change. For example, consider, how employees are greeted when they enter the business. How do they enter, what types of PPE do they need, what are rules for social distancing and engagement?

Altogether, it’s so important to understand that the subtle changes of past interactions can create emotionally challenging situations for employees.

Webster mentions that “we’re accustomed to particular ways of creating relationships and engaging with others. As a social society, there’s a desire for human connection, but there are unknown boundaries that we need to navigate through.”

Webster continues, “what has changed now is that people are returning who haven’t been in close work relationships for an extended period. And the rules on what is right or appropriate have changed.“ Some things that we’ve done our entire lives, like having large intimate gatherings or even shaking hands need to be reconsidered.

Simply put, Browne advises, that “we need to create a safe, supportive, and encouraging environment, right, where we can get strength to do the hard work.”

That’s why, when planning to bring employees and clients back into contact with one another, the rules of engagement need to be established. Provide direction on things like six-foot social distancing, fist bumps, leg taps or video only meetings.

It’s one of the first, uncomfortable feelings we need to work through. And establishing ground rules can help people to feel more comfortable, quicker.

Building your plan to mitigate emotional challenges

Creating a safe environment that helps people transition from a fear-based environment consists of a few simple steps. Here’s a checklist to help your planning.

1. Solicit feedback

“One way that we’ve typically measured the social and emotional well-being of our people was through engagement surveys or performance reviews,” mentions Browne. “Anytime you survey your employees, you’re helping guide the direction of the organization.”

She recommends making sure the questions you ask answer three things:

  1. What are the employees thinking
  2. What do they believe our intentions are; and
  3. What are they doing.”

Start by asking simple questions like:

  • What is you level of happiness with their current work situation?
  • Do you feel comfortable in your current work situation?
  • Do you feel you received enough communication?
  • What would you change with the current situation?

Answers to questions like this help provide an understanding of what your employees are thinking and what they need to feel secure.

2. Reinforce or establish your company culture

One key to running a successful organization is to have a culture based on a strongly held and widely shared set of beliefs. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, when an organization has a strong culture, three things happen:

  1. Knowledge – Employees know how to respond to any situation
  2. Empowerment – Employees believe that the expected response is the proper one
  3. Satisfaction – Employees know that they will be rewarded for supporting organizational values

If you had an established culture pre-pandemic, go back to your roots. For instance, if your company was a customer-centric organization pre-COVID, leverage that. Remind employees of your company mission and establish policy changes that put employee’s safety at the forefront.

If you need to establish a culture, now is the perfect time. The Harvard Business Review has some great tips on how to build a strong culture.

3. Build a communication plan

In order to create a safe, encouraging and supportive environment for employees to feel normal again, you need to establish trust. Trust can be built through honest communication and respect.

When employees are getting information, it helps reduce fear and anxiety. As a leader, its so important to provide your staff with the answers they need to feel safe and in control.

Be sure to think of your communications from a long-term perspective. Webster says that “when you’re talking about people, change, and relationships, you have to go at least 18 months with that strong communication component.” So, it’s important that the communications remain consistent and evolve with the situation.

For employees that are working remotely, add a little empathy to your communications, such as these tips from the Society of Human Resources Management

  • Offer easily accessible online communications, toolkits and resources.
  • Conduct quick check-ins with each participant at the start of virtual meetings to connect personally as well as professionally.
  • Provide informal chats, webinars or videos from leaders that are empathetic toward the challenges people are going through.
  • Encourage employees working remotely to take time for self-care or exercise during the workday.

4. Establish accountability

You need to establish accountability for leadership and staff. Guidelines need to be set so everyone can abide by the new rules and understand repercussions for deviation.

Think through scenarios and set ground rules on how to react. Consider scenarios like: what are we going to do when someone insists on having large in-person meetings?

Creating a company-wide understanding as you bring people back creates accountability and ads context to help foster new interpersonal relationships. Webster reminds us, that “the plan, has to be long term and part of the larger strategic plans moving forward. Learn from it and adapt to aid in fostering strong emotional bonds.

Returning to work

Although navigating through this change is difficult, having guidelines in place provides structure employees can rally around.

Remember, through all this difficult change, we’ve been given the opportunity to hit the reset button. It’s so important that we look at this as an opportunity for reflection and change. We need to ask ourselves, what have learned from this and how do we implement change to make our working environment safer, more inclusive and engaging.

Wellfleet is here to help you through these challenging times. Visit our ‘Back to Work’ series page for more helpful resources on physically and emotionally returning to work.

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