Transitional Anxiety Is Real: How to Overcome It When Trying to Bring Back Employees to “Normal”

Change is part of life. Many changes are expected, like graduating from high school or moving to a new home. Even these can bring about stress, which is defined by Webster as strong feelings of worry or anxiety.

But when a major change takes place unexpectedly, such as the death of a loved one, these feelings are magnified. Few would argue that the COVID pandemic was one of the largest, most unexpected changes to affect nearly everything in our lives.

Despite the challenges, most people learned to adapt. Children learned from home, we shopped more online, and employees got comfortable working remotely. It was difficult at first, but everyone had plenty of time to make the adjustment.

Now more companies are calling their remote workers back to work, at least as part of a hybrid working arrangement.  And so, employees are being asked to adapt again.

Some employers may be underestimating what they are asking of their employees.  After all, most employees had worked onsite full-time for years with few problems or concerns. Now they are simply being asked to come back and do what they had always done. Easy, right?

Not exactly. Why?  Because many employees are feeling the effects of transitional anxiety. They had grown comfortable in their new routines, and now those are changing. Again.

The reality is that not everyone processes change the same way. The uncertainty of a new path, such as returning to work where there may be lingering fears of infection exposure or concerns about separating from one’s family, generates anxiety. Sometimes this anxiety can be so crippling that the person is unable to move forward on the new path.

Employers who are hoping to maximize productivity and create a nurturing work environment that will help them recruit and retain employees need to be aware of the emotional challenges facing returning employees and the additional baggage that many of them will be bringing back to the office.

Tips for Helping Employees Overcome Their Transitional Anxiety

Helping employees to return to a sense of normalcy in the office requires a multi-pronged approach. These tips can aid in the mental healing process and help create a confident, welcoming and safe work environment:

  1. Schedule and/or encourage mental health breaks throughout the work day when employees can focus on relieving stress.  Lunchtime exercise/yoga classes are one option. Cardio workouts stimulate brain chemicals that foster growth of nerve cells, increase the activity of serotonin and release endorphins. Deep breathing exercises that include taking full breaths through the diaphragm help ensure the body is releasing sufficient carbon dioxide and other toxins that can also add to feelings of stress.
  • Establish clear communications and protocols.  Uncertainty can feed existing stress. Returning employees will want to know what is accepted and what is not in the new work environment.  Are hugs or hand shakes allowed?  Will masks be required?  How will employees prove that they have been vaccinated? What type of social distancing requirements will remain in place? What are the new sick policies for staying home? How will common areas be disinfected? Will employees be allowed to gather in groups in conference rooms or cafeterias?  These are all questions that are likely front and center for many of your employees. So make sure you’re prepared to answer them and enforce policies consistently.
  • Encourage open communication. Allowing employees to openly discuss fears and questions  with peers makes them feel like they are being heard. Consider creating support groups for working moms and other specific demographics that may have added burdens as part of the return-to-work routine.
  • Solicit employee feedback and demonstrate a willingness to compromise. Remember to include employees, or at least employee representatives, when creating new return-to-work safety procedures and protocols. If employees express concerns, offer to ease them back into a full-time onsite schedule and initially offer a hybrid alternative.
  • Acknowledge and empathize.  Training may be necessary for supervisors to help them become better listeners. Make sure that supervisors, as well as all HR personnel, understand the importance of acknowledging that the concerns and fears expressed by employees are very real and should not be minimized.
  • Provide employee assistance. This could take many forms.  It could be as straight-forward as offering additional financial assistance to help offset childcare expenses. It could represent a more proactive approach of bringing in a counselor or providing access to professional help.  Or it could be as simple as having support materials available that encourage employees to, among things, develop non-place-based routines that can be practiced anywhere, such as listening to music, deep breathing exercises, or the like. Another good recommendation for employees is to encourage them to find constancy elsewhere in their lives.  So they may no longer have as much control over their work schedule, but they may find comfort in continuing other routines, such as walking at a certain time or watching a particular TV show.
  • Be patient.  Establishing new routines and comfort levels takes time.  Even if it’s a return to an old routine. It won’t happen overnight.  Some employees may take months to regain their footing and re-establish a sense of normalcy. Employers and employees need to be realistic and allow time to adjust.

Warning Signs That Employees are Not Coping With the Transition

One of the most important tips for employers is to be on alert for warning signs that your employees are not coping as well as they could with transitional anxiety. Symptoms that could be especially worrisome include:

  • Decreased productivity
  • Lack of focus
  • Difficulty sleeping / showing signs of fatigue at work
  • Ongoing feelings of hopelessness or anxiety
  • Easily agitated/overly irritable
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Additional health problems, including migraines, intestinal distress and infections (People are more vulnerable to an array of health problems when they are under stress for an extended period.)

Many employers have been counting the days until they could welcome back their employees in-person. It’s great that we have reached a point in the pandemic where we feel it’s safe to return to old routines.  Just keep in mind that not everyone is ready to embrace the return-to-work routine with as much enthusiasm. How well an employer handles employee concerns at this vulnerable point in time could make a huge difference in the company’s ability to retain its top talent.