The reality of return-to-work anxiety
Posted on 3rd February 2022 at 10:20
Statistics released by the Stress Management Society revealed that 65% of people feel more stressed since the pandemic hit in March 2020, and 53% of those surveyed are also experiencing increased levels of anxiety. But will the return to the office reverse the effects and reduce this stress and anxiety?
Not according to the Stress Management Society, the nationwide organisation dedicated to helping individuals and companies recognise and reduce stress. This is due to the fact that there’s a growing realisation that the shape of offices, and how workforces interact with them, must change to protect the health and engagement of employees now and in the future.
Until recently, the flexibility to work from home was seen solely as an employee benefit or, post March 2020, a necessity. However, two years later, businesses have come to realise that there is genuine anxiety about a return to co-working spaces. Yet, with almost 40% of businesses yet to implement any mental health response to the Pandemic, the choices they make in terms of the physical environment are even more important and fundamental to the organisation’s Employee Value Proposition.
There are a vanguard of companies who are heading towards 100% flexibility, with the likes of Spotify, SalesForce and Nationwide implementing a ‘Work Anywhere’ strategy, which will enable employees to choose where and how they work.
Spotify said of its decision: “We are proud to introduce ‘Work from Anywhere’, a new way of collaborating that allows Spotifiers to work from wherever they do their best thinking and creating”.
With this approach there is, of course, benefits to companies too, including significant cost savings. Nationwide closed three offices in Swindon, with 3,000 staff either moving to the nearby HQ, working from home, a hybrid of the two, or even working from their local high street branch. SalesForce also anticipates the move will unlock talent pools without the investment cost in property, and hopes the move will drive greater equality.
It is notable that Work Anywhere schemes have put the shape and presence of the workforce in the hands of the employees, with flexibility becoming king, but many people have struggled with working from home, with remote cultures significantly blurring the lines of work and home which, in itself, has caused fatigue and stress. As such, without additional structures in place to regain connectivity, there are significant risks around this level of flexibility.
A New Approach
The most common trend is towards a structured hybrid model, with employees working from offices two-to-three days a week. Global tech giants, Facebook, Google and Amazon, have recently invested in buying, building or leasing new real estate, all of this to develop attractive amenities and life-enhancing initiatives to help support workforce engagement. Closer to home, British fintech firm, Vanquis Bank, is committed to offering dynamic and supportive initiatives.
Lynn McSeveney, Director of Talent at Vanquis Bank comments: “Our colleagues, like our customers, are our key asset and their mental health and wellbeing is really important to us. We do a lot to support our colleagues through our mental health first aiders and employee assistance programme, which gives our staff access to a wide range of help and advice around their wellbeing. We’ve also recently introduced our ‘Keep it free Friday’, where all colleagues receive a diary note reminding them to think twice about booking and accepting meetings during this time to allow for valuable thinking space and self-development.”
As workforces make the move back to offices, it’s key that businesses engage with their staff to understand their fears and concerns in terms of the practical requirements, safety and mental health impact. The sense of being out of control, for many people, as government restrictions took effect has been a huge factor in the increase in anxiety levels, and as we move out of lockdown, the right communication with employees is key to regaining connectivity and control.
Considering Neurodivergent Employees
In this already complex landscape, it’s vital employers also consider the needs of neurodivergent employees that, statistically, will represent 10 to 15 percent of their workforce, or one-in-seven people. In an early 2020 survey of professionals, 35 percent of participants admitted that they would feel uncomfortable telling their employers they are neurodivergent. The same study, worryingly, also revealed that one-in-three people are still uncomfortable asking for the support they need.
Whilst some people have thrived working remotely, others have struggled. Additionally, a significant number will be anxious about what the return to offices will mean for them. Remote working has necessitated individualised workspaces, and moving back into a homogeneous office environment will be challenging for many - so now is the time to ask everyone about what adaptations they need.
Approximately 60 percent of adaptations in workplaces that support neurodivergent staff cost nothing. Creased Puddle, which empowers neurodiversity in the workplace, has built a free guide to designing a neurodiverse workplace which can be downloaded here.
Caroline Turner at Creased Puddle, comments: “The return to shared physical work spaces is the perfect time to open dialogue with all employees about what they want and need, and will give businesses the opportunity to identify individual requirements and act on them positively. In turn, this will significantly benefit the overall welfare of employees giving back both a sense of control and connectivity.”
There are several ways in which employers can implement workplace adaptations which can have a genuine impact on neurodiverse team members, with little outlay or effort:
Create quiet zones in the office and allow headphones for noise cancelling and greater concentration.
Agree to flexibility around start and finish times, as some people may benefit from earlier or later working hours.
Where employees have been onboarded remotely, remember to offer them the same orientation for the office as you would any other new starter. They may have been your colleague for a year but they may still not have seen their desk.
Ensure wellbeing initiatives and work events are inclusive by involving neurodivergent employees at the planning stage.
Vary the dress code and review your old guidelines. The world has changed significantly in the last 12 months, and outdated rules and regulations will only hamper productively and wellbeing.
Ask neurodivergent or neurotypical employees what a good work environment looks like, and work together to make improvements.
Keep talking, continue to communicate and inform, ask questions and take action. It’s that simple.
David Blackburn, Chief People Officer at FSCS summed up the benefits of taking positive action in a recent interview: “Flexibility is about much more than providing access to the right tools and technology. The truth is that in every relationship – personal and professional – what you do has far greater impact than anything you say… Good words have their place: they signal behaviour. You can say all these things but unless you do them, your words will not build trust.”
Workplaces have an obligation to prioritise the mental and physical wellbeing of their staff, but by making positive changes and acknowledging all team members’ specific needs, businesses can only benefit in terms of productivity, retention and engagement.
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