Strategies for Minimizing the Stress of Returning to Work(place)

3 ways to help employees adjust to new norms

It’s fair to say that people have mixed emotions about returning to the workplace. Many will welcome the idea of getting back to an office environment where they can focus better and collaborate without the distractions of home. They’ll enjoy seeing colleagues and clients. However, returning will create stress, too, as they worry about what health and safety measures are in place to protect against the coronavirus.

Here are three strategies to help employees navigate the stress of returning to work.

Recognize That Employees Are Stressed

A year ago, the World Health Organization classified burnout as a syndrome related to chronic stress. Stress was already a problem. Fast forward to post-pandemic, and many employees will return to the workplace in a heightened state of stress.

Everyone has experienced loss in some form as a result of the pandemic. Loss of the security of going to a workplace, loss of control, and for many, loss of health and even loved ones. People will return to the workplace with concerns. They’ll be worried about how things will change. They may perceive changes in the workplace as more loss.

Another thing to keep in mind is that for employees, the workplace is a valuable resource. People naturally strive to get and protect valuable resources. Changes implemented to respond to COVID-19 may result in them feeling like they are losing resources instead of gaining them. They may feel that important things are being taken away from them—and this can lead to a sense of loss.

Feelings of worry and loss can heighten stress. Stress isn’t bad, per se. In fact, healthy doses (known as eustress) drive us to stay on track and engaged. Eustress leads to productivity and accomplishment.

Excessive stress is another story. It leads to distress. We feel overwhelmed and lose our ability to think rationally. A fight, flight, or freeze response may take over. When we’re under too much stress, we seek safety and protection as a matter of survival.

We also know from research that stress has a negative impact on health and our ability to stay focused on our work. Distractions, interference, and interruptions are three external culprits that disrupt focus. Unfortunately, internal factors like fatigue, hunger, and—yes, stress—are more challenging to manage than external factors.

During this time of work environment transition, leaders can acknowledge employee stress by taking time to talk with team members about the challenges they face. Consider hosting a quick check-in as a start to team meetings or share a personal story of overcoming a new workplace situation. As leaders, being a bit vulnerable in managing your own stress helps others.

Now more than ever, leaders need to encourage behaviors that reduce stress.

Soothe the Stress
As many of us have discovered while working from home the last few months, our minds and bodies don’t fare well under excessive stress. It’s simply not sustainable to jump into work first thing in the morning, constantly respond to emails, zoom from virtual meeting to virtual meeting, and wrap up the day nine or ten hours later. We need breaks and restorative time. We need to soothe the stress.

Now more than ever, leaders need to encourage behaviors that reduce stress. This means slowing down, taking measures to feel safe, and practicing kindness and care—which includes self-care too. A 20-minute walk can reset stress to a healthier level no matter where you work, remotely or in the workplace.

Leaders can help people manage external distractions by creating workplaces where people experience autonomy. Giving people freedom to choose where to work and control over features in their workspaces can go a long way to assist with focus.

Workplace design plays a role in reducing stress too. Even with physical distancing measures in place, employees still need social spaces that support safe interaction and nurture group relationships. They also need places for focus work, clear cues about the new ways to use the building, and places to retreat and relax when stress starts building up.

Giving people control over their workspace with furnishings that adjust to their workstyle and ergonomic needs is another way to minimize harmful stress.

Look Beyond Official Guidelines
Guidelines from government agencies, local health departments, and trade associations provide best practices for minimizing employees’ exposure to the coronavirus. However, they don’t address emotional and psychological factors that affect people’s ability to focus, manage stress, communicate, and collaborate in new, physically distant ways.

Everyone responds differently to a crisis and the stress that can result. However, times of crisis can provide some of the most important opportunities to deepen trust and commitment with employees in ways that not only support greater well-being, but also position your organization for greater business success when the crisis is over.

To learn more about helping your employees through this transition, explore our unique approach to returning to the workplace.

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