Coping after COVID-19 and the Return to Work

Written by
Shavon Andrews

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It has been over a year since COVID-19 has been declared a pandemic, and we all left our offices.

Some employees are excited to leave their homes, return to an office and finally wear business attire.  Other employees may experience symptoms similar to PTSD after a traumatic event, which COVID has been for many, symptoms that usually heal independently after a while. Those who have PTSD can get stuck and some aren’t able to move past their trauma.  The brain takes over, they become anxious, and it can be terrifying.  Their ability to think logically gets impacted. Therefore, leaders need to realize that some employees might be trepidatious about returning to the office.  Employers should be ready to assist where possible.

What should you be thinking about as you bring your staff back?

If you have employees that feel uneasy or anxious about what the future holds, let them know that they’re not alone. Here are a few ideas to share with employees to help navigate this tumultuous time:

Overcommunicate:  Anxious team members will fill any silence with noise, and, frequently, the stories they tell themselves may not be grounded in fact and reality. Don’t let open space fill with anxiety.  Instead, take extra time and effort to communicate early and often. Below are tips for effective workplace communication that will help increase productivity and improve relationships with co-workers and employees.

  • Communicate face-to-face whenever possible.
  • Provide clear information.
  • Combine verbal and nonverbal communication.
  • Don’t just hear – listen.
  • Ask questions.
  • Handle conflicts with diplomacy.
  • Offer positive feedback.
  • Refrain from gossip.

It may feel like you’re overdoing it, but you’re not.  Employees want to be a part of the process and feel in the know, so look for ways to actively include them in figuring out a path that works for the business and the diverse people on the team.

Be an Adaptable Leader:  For leaders, adaptability is about having ready access to different ways of thinking, enabling leaders to shift and experiment as things change. This is a new and unique situation that everyone is going through in some form or fashion together.  Despite our best efforts, mistakes will happen.  Allow employees permission to give themselves space to be patient and understand themselves and others as we all work to find our way to “the new normal.”  Adaptable leaders have flexible ways of thinking. They know that while an end goal and a vision are necessary, the path that takes them there needs to be flexible. The practice of adaptive leadership means having multiple plans for reaching said goals. Rather than getting stuck on one solution to solve a problem, adaptable leaders have a contingency plan in place for when plan A doesn’t work. Planning allows appropriate responses to the uncertainty of the pandemic and the return to work process.

Foster Staff Engagement: They’re not going through this by themselves, and others share the questions they have.  Engage employees in dialogue about the realities of the situation, what is known, what is not, and the path forward.  Offer opportunities for employees to share, i.e., town hall meetings, weekly check-ins, or employee-led interactive zoom meetings.

Wellness Benefits: Offering Employee Lunch and Learns on breathing or meditation often helps reduce anxiety.   Check and see if your company health insurance company offers any resources; many therapists conduct meditation and wellness training.  Establish or reissue information on a company Employee Assistance Program.  An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is a voluntary, work-based program that offers free and confidential assessments, short-term counseling, referrals, and follow-up services to employees who have personal or work-related problems. Below please find a few resources to help your employees learn how to take a pause, breathe, and re-center themselves.

Support Employees on How to Get Help: If employees are finding that the anxiety associated with these changes is becoming too much to manage, they need to be honest with themselves and acknowledge that it may be time to reach out to someone who can assist.

Be Honest About What You Know and What you Don’t: As the vaccines are being distributed and more facts and data will become available.   There will likely be many changes and variables influencing life for you and your team in the foreseeable future. Be honest with your team about what is known and what isn’t.  Ask them for their input and questions.  The dialogue will help everyone process the situation and feel a sense of control in a sea of uncertainty.

Don’t Ignore Warning Signs of Distress: Some of your team (or you) may be having significant challenges navigating the return to work, and they may be sending subtle signals that they are in distress.

  • Deterioration in physical appearance or personal hygiene.
  • Excessive fatigue, exhaustion.
  • Visible changes in weight; statements about changes in appetite or sleep.
  • Noticeable cuts, bruises, or burns.
  • Frequent or chronic illness.
  • Disorganized speech, rapid or slurred speech, confusion.
  • Unusual inability to make eye contact.

Your role as a leader will require that you keep your antennae tuned in to yourself and your team.  Keeping a sharp eye out during your interactions with others for signals (verbal and non-verbal) that they may be experiencing levels of anxiety or difficulty that may be unhealthy can be highly beneficial.  Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) and being proactive about communicating these offerings to team members can be a great start. In addition, employers should build extra time for team events and activities to transition back into the office environment.

For more ideas on helping staff return to the office, reach out to the Insource Human Resources Team.