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Linda Sage

Successful Mindset Ltd

Psychologist, Speaker, Writer, Trainer

Read more about Linda Sage

Three ways to ensure re-entry anxiety doesn’t escalate into a toxic work environment

If employees' re-entry fears are left unresolved, toxic behaviours may creep in. How can HR avoid this?

Similar to when the astronauts early in the Space Programme struggled to adapt to ‘normal’ life upon their return, re-entry into the physical workplace as restrictions ease is causing considerable anxiety. 

Some people want to be back in a physical working environment, some people don’t. Some people have been vaccinated, some people have not and/or will not. Acknowledging and managing how each employee feels about this unique situation is vital to ensuring anxiety doesn’t escalate into something far more toxic.

Addressing this potential risk starts with asking what the needs and worries are of your employees and really listening to their responses. Are they concerned about who hasn’t been vaccinated? Or their colleagues’ level of cleanliness or social activities leading to a greater risk of infection? Have they got used to their home working environment and fear the office will cause greater disturbances and stress?

If you don’t allow your people to voice their concerns, they may experience greater stress and anxiety from bottling it all up. Alternatively, they may turn to more externally toxic behaviour such as gossiping, excluding certain colleagues, or disengaging from social interaction with team members altogether.

Left unaddressed, this harmful behaviour will make or break your team and possibly the business. As you prepare for workers to reintegrate back into the physical workplace, it’s essential that you consider how to prevent any underlying tensions that are at the root of toxicity. 

By factoring in the need for autonomy, competence and relatedness you will help smooth the transition and help avoid any employee fears escalating into toxic behaviour.

There are three key areas to focus on to help create a harmonious reintegration.

  • Autonomy – the ability to feel in control of one’s life and act according to core values

  • Competence – the ability to experience a sense of mastery (feel like you are good at things)

  • Relatedness – the capacity to interact with others

1. Autonomy

Autonomy has been severely challenged throughout the pandemic, with regards to the choices individuals can make, the places they can go and people they can see.  Often they have had to make very difficult decisions and have adapted to their new requirements, but this took time and effort to achieve.

Transitioning back into the physical workplace will bring up a whole host of issues and concerns. Many people have become wary of leaving their homes. Will they be safe travelling to and from work on public transport? Will their home remain a safe place if each household member is going out to different places, all with risks?

Once in the workplace, are their colleagues safe? Are they vaccinated? Has their workspace been cleaned and sanitised? Are shared spaces, communal equipment, dining areas, toilets, washing and changing facilities all safe to use? These considerations will be whirling around many people’s minds, because once again they do not feel in control. 

Prevention is always better than cure, with policies and procedures acting as a safety net. Here’s some things you can do:

  • Send out a survey before reintegrating your employees, to better understand what their issues, concerns and worries are. It will offer a good basis to work from as many may have the same or similar concerns

  • Inform staff of the measures you will be taking prior to their return. You could record a short video, walking through what changes have been made to support them, or arrange a video call to do the same plus allow time for questions

  • Create a company policy for vaccinated and non vaccinated staff

  • Ensure there are safe spaces for employees to discuss their concerns without feeling victimised or threatened

Engaging employees in this way ensures more productivity, less toxicity, absenteeism and recruitment and fewer disciplinaries. Your investment in prevention will be recuperated very quickly. 

There is already a naming and shaming aspect of going back to work with regard to the vaccine. Actions are needed to replace this with a supportive atmosphere.

2. Competence

Through remote working, the competence of many workers has been challenged and new skills developed. Celebrating, reusing and building on these skills is key to supporting the reintegration of your people.

Digital skills, online communication and presentation/public speaking abilities have rocketed during the pandemic. Many who were scared to speak up before are now more confident and competent. Look at where these skills can be developed for the enhancement of the person and the benefit of the business.

By encouraging the upskilling of your employees as they return to work, you are signalling that you value them and believe they are worth investing in. This will give them a renewed sense of motivation and may also help make their reintegration worries less of a focal point.

3. Relatedness

The relatedness of each individual has also been challenged during the pandemic. Distance and isolation quickly became the new reality of daily life, which has encroached on our ability to manage distress. One aspect of life that makes distress more tolerable is the physical contact, love and affection of others – and this isn’t as easy to experience as it once was.

The changes and withdrawal from social behaviour is something that needs to be supported. Organisations need to offer mental health provision, reduce mental health stigma and educate staff to recognise signs and symptoms of poor health, as well as show greater compassion and understanding.

There is already a naming and shaming aspect of going back to work with regard to the vaccine. Actions are needed to replace this with a supportive atmosphere.

Easing out of lockdown and back into the office

Achieving a successful reentry into the physical workplace will take time and careful planning. Don’t expect to go from 0-100 in one step, as this will cause many casualties and conflict management issues.

By factoring in the need for autonomy, competence and relatedness you will help smooth the transition and help avoid any employee fears escalating into toxic behaviour.

Interested in this topic? Read ‘How HR can mitigate the mental health impact of office re-integration‘.


Author Profile Picture
Linda Sage

Psychologist, Speaker, Writer, Trainer

Read more from Linda Sage

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