How to help your employees with back-to-work anxiety

As we move towards COVID-normal, many people in Australia have returned, or are starting to return to their physical workplaces. For business owners and managers, it’s important to know how to manage any anxiety your staff may be feeling during the transition back into the workplace.

Even though it might feel like things are slowly starting to get back to normal, many people in Australia remain anxious in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Combined with the fact that many people are, or expect to be, heading back to their usual place of work in the near future, it’s not surprising to learn they may be feeling anxious at the prospect.

This is uncharted territory for you too, so be mindful of taking care of yourself and remember that it's okay not to have all the answers during this transition.

It’s understandable if you’re feeling anxious, and that this can be compounded by regular work stress. However, there are other reasons why people may be experiencing a heightened sense of anxiety right now.

“There’s often anxiety around readjustment, uncertainty and change,” says Dr Oliver Black, a Honorary Fellow of the Department of Management at Deakin University.

“We experienced that heading into the pandemic, when working life shifted for many of us, and coming out of it is also fraught because we’re dealing with those things once again.

If you employ staff, you have obligations around ensuring their health and safety in relation to COVID-19. These include encouraging workers to practice physical distancing, maintain good hygiene and stay home when they’re feeling sick, along with regularly cleaning the workplace.

There are also other steps you can take and strategies you can use to help your staff get back to work.

How you can help

Acknowledge that anxiety is expected

Dr Black believes it is important for employers to acknowledge that employee anxiety about returning to work is reasonable.

“Showing you understand your employee’s concerns and that you are addressing them helps to build trust. This will make employees more willing to provide constructive feedback, which is important.

Stay nimble

As we move towards COVID normal, many workplaces have a unique opportunity to assess their ways of working. They can not only reintroduce practices that were beneficial pre-COVID, but retain some of the new approaches that have been successful over the last few months.

For example, if people have been performing their roles well while working from home, you could consider keeping – or at least having a discussion around retaining – those flexible work arrangements moving forward.

“Several aspects of your employees’ lives are likely to be changing at the same time so it’s important to support them. That might mean letting them work a little differently, where that’s possible,” says Dr Black.

He also suggests checking in regularly with your employees throughout this process.

“This will help you monitor their wellbeing and manage risks, including promoting help-seeking or continuing to adjust work practices.”

Create a healthy work environment

The principles required to create and maintain a mentally healthy workplace during the transition back to a physical workplace remain the same as pre-COVID. Strategies such as ensuring good work design, including providing role clarity, feedback, co-worker support and recognition, haven’t changed, nor have the benefits to employers (lower presenteeism and absenteeism).

“Business owners and managers should access best practice advice about workplace mental health more broadly, as well as capitalising on the current high levels of awareness surrounding mental health to address mental health stigma in the workplace,” says Dr Black.

Bear in mind, too, that the shift which has occurred in many working environments as a result of coronavirus may mean a previously mentally healthy workplace has taken a hit. For example, employees’ roles may have changed, and usual feedback loops and support networks may be disrupted.

This can mean that risks that were previously mitigated may not be now, so it’s important to reassess and understand how managers can lead the way to healthy work environments .

Of course, this involves business owners and managers taking care of themselves too. This includes ensuring they are exercising regularly, eating well, getting enough sleep and accessing support when necessary

“It’s really important that they prioritise their own mental health and wellbeing during this time and feel able to access support when they need it,” says Dr Black.

Additional resources

This simple checklist aims to measure whether you, as a small business owner or manager, may have been affected by depression and anxiety during the past four weeks.

Creating a wellbeing plan is one way to make sure you have the strategies in place to look after your employees’ mental health and wellbeing – and your own.

Beyond Blue’s Workplace wellbeing plan helps small business owners who employ staff. This guide by Victorian Small Business Commission helps small business owners to create a wellbeing plan to help support their own mental health.

HeadGear is a free an easy-to-use smartphone app designed by Black Dog Institute to build resilience and wellbeing.

Smiling Mind have developed a free mindfulness program for small business owners.

The Path back from Social Isolation publication is a COVID-19 resource and free interactive training module for business leaders and employees.


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