Addressing tensions in the workplace as Covid transitions roll out

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We may all be welcoming the gradual easing of lockdown restrictions. But, for employers that have successfully adapted to, and now got used to, a Covid stay-at-home culture, the transition back to ‘normal’ (or a hybrid verson of it) may bring with it a raft of employee health and wellbeing challenges, especially around mental health and anxiety. These will need to be managed carefully and sensitively, argues Vanessa Rose.

Transitions of any kind can be difficult. Transitions in response to a pandemic that has ravaged the globe for over a year may be difficult in their own way. With Covid-19 shifting how we work, play, and care for ourselves, we’ve seen an increase in health anxiety, job burnout, and social dilemmas.

Whether employees are working from home permanently or moving back into the office, companies are encouraged to take a mindful approach to these transitions as stress is understandably high.

Acknowledging concerns

The emotions and concerns each employee will face during this transition will vary from person to person. Interpersonal relationships and open communication can facilitate positive opportunities for growth, so employers may want to open up feedback loops with their team to ensure concerns are being voiced and addressed respectfully rather than ignored and accumulated.

Some concerns to be expected may include:

  • Ongoing fear of contracting or spreading Covid-19
  • Upset around having to leave children or pets at home again
  • Difficulty re-establishing old routines or developing new ones
  • Social anxiety after an extended period of isolation and distancing
  • Overwhelm over loss of work-from-home flexibility

As a result of these concerns, employees may have a difficult time focusing, staying motivated at work, and maintaining their former levels of productivity.

There is good news for some: getting back into the routines you’ve long missed may start to become possible again. For others, however, new routines will need to be established which will require a healthy balance of self-care and discipline.

Above all, while devising new policies and schedules, companies should prioritize safety, as well as open communication, validation of concerns, and stress reduction opportunities. This can help reduce the kind of tension that not only makes work difficult, but creates an environment primed for conflict.

How can companies support employees with their concerns?

If we learned anything from experiencing the impacts of a pandemic, it’s that we’re all in this together. Our actions impact others and our needs are best supported in community settings.

With that in mind, employers can explore some of the following eight methods to support their teams. Occupational health practitioners may also be able to provide help, guidance and leadership on all these areas.

1) Well-researched policies. National and world health organisations have been providing and updating guidelines and recommendations for Covid-19 safety. Employers would benefit from creating policies that reflect these guidelines with employee safety in mind.

2) Stress reduction. Stress in the workplace isn’t new, but this combination of stressors is. Devising safe ways for employees to have fun, cope with anxiety, and reconnect with their colleagues can help make the transition sustainable. Offering meditations, yoga, or workout guidance either virtually or in safe distance, can also help support stress reduction.

3) Conflict resolution. With tensions and social stressors so high, conflict of some type is imminent. It’s also no secret that political responses to Covid-19 have been divisive, which means employees may be arriving back into a shared space with vastly different philosophies on how to stay safe. Acknowledging the heightened presence of conflict kindling and offering conflict resolution training to leadership can help reduce the impact of this.

4) Mental health support. Our collective mental health has taken a big hit during this time of fear and social separation. Offering employees resources to support their mental health is more important now than ever before. If your company doesn’t offer an employee assistance programme (EAP) or financial support (for example insurance) that specifically covers mental health, you may want to get some resources in place. Counselling should be accessible to those who need it.

5) Managing Covid-19 fears and related conflict. Not everyone holds the same concerns for Covid which can cause relational ruptures in shared spaces. If one employee even gently violates safety protocols, it may result in conflict. Heightened tensions and individual challenges can make workplace disputes more common than before. But there are ways to address it, both proactively and reactively.

6) Communicate clear policies. Once new policies are established, they should be communicated to employees quickly, clearly, and repeatedly. New policies should be available for employees to access at any time and updates to the policies should be communicated as well. More on communication best practices later.

7) Encourage self-care. Whether mental or physical, if employees are struggling, they should prioritize their own care. While modern workforces have normalised long work days and showing up when sick, this should be discouraged, especially during this particular transition. Employees should be highly encouraged to stay home if they’re showing signs of being sick as their presence will only increase concerns and decrease their ability to get better. If amendments to company sick policy are needed in order to accommodate a healthier work environment, lean in.

8) Train for conflict resolution. Conflict resolution skills are lacking in basic education and many people have personalities that may be either conflict-avoidant or conflict-loving. Either way, most employees do not come with built-in skills for managing conflict in the workplace. Employers can help, however, by offering their team – especially those at a leadership level – training in resolving conflict, applying effective communication skills to reduce conflict, and regulating their own emotional distress to reduce the likelihood of escalation.

Addressing mental health in the workplace

Ensuring employees have the tools they need to address mental health concerns can also help reduce workplace conflict in the long run. Mental health is a private affair but checking in with employees regularly can help reduce instances of overwhelm, withdrawal, or continued isolation.

1) Increased stress. Increased stress can come from needing to find childcare or pet care after an extended period working from home. This change may also come with feelings of guilt as priorities shift and relationships shift, too. Separation anxiety may persist in some instances so flexibility around working from home should remain.

2) Health anxiety. Many of us will take a while to get used to feeling safe again. We’ve spent a year being conditioned to fear close proximity to one another and that fear won’t just go away because things appear to be getting back to normal. Thoroughly and consistently addressing concerns around cleanliness, physical distancing, face masks, and contamination will be important to reduce these worries.

3) Change anxiety. Anyone who struggles with anxiety knows anxiety doesn’t need a good reason to rear its head, but if anything could trigger anxiety into its peak performance, it’s change. Be as transparent as possible about changes happening in the office, whether it’s discussing new policies and procedures or sharing about what small details of daily life will need some getting used to.

4) Pre-existing mental health diagnoses. Individuals that have pre-existing mental health diagnoses may experience an increase in their symptoms during this transition, as well. Those with anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, for example, may have worked hard to adapt to staying at home and may need some extra time adapting to these new changes. Folks with anxiety and OCD may also especially struggle with concerns about the virus and fears of germ-spreading. Working with a therapist who can help navigate these concerns is one way to get support.

5) Social anxiety. Social isolation was challenging at the beginning of Covid stay-at-home orders, but transitioning out of it after a year or more will not be as easy as we anticipated when we thought lockdown would only last 2 weeks. Some people will experience social anxiety when returning to more extroverted spaces. Being mindful of this can help lower expectations and create a more comfortable environment.

Employers and colleagues alike can benefit from increased mindfulness around changes in performance, absenteeism, irritability and anger, difficulty concentrating, stress when making decisions, or isolation. Support and patience may be offered.

Best practices for introducing company changes

Making big changes across the company isn’t always easy, but if you’ve already adapted to Covid stay-at-home culture, then you might be more prepared for this transition than you think.

Making big changes across the company isn’t always easy, but if you’ve already adapted to Covid stay-at-home culture, then you might be more prepared for this transition than you think.

When we first had to transition in response to Covid, we were doing so under enormous stress and urgency with unprecedented trails to blaze. Now we have more time to plan, communicate, and retrace our steps on a trail already blazed. Let’s explore how employers can use that insight to implement change effectively and transparently.

Employers can benefit from placing all transition-related policies and updates in one place that’s readily available to employees at any time. Transparency is important in the process of change, especially when there are many people involved.

Policies should be clear and concise and include day-to-day expectations of employees, transparent consequences if policies are violated, and the root causes of the policies, if applicable, to increase employee buy-in.

Enforce the policies with kindness. Some employees may snap back into old patterns, some may struggle to keep up with changes, and others may protest precautions they don’t deem necessary. Any safety policy that is violated should have repercussions enforced to ensure things don’t get out of hand.

Employers should keep communication lines open so employees can offer feedback and necessary adjustments can be made. This won’t be a perfect process but crowd-sourcing intel and responding to employee needs can go a long way.

Offer transparency about how policies may impact products and services offered or the customer experience. Communicating about wide-spread impacts of policy changes can help reduce unexpected stress points later.

Prioritise safety and be flexible. While we may be getting closer to safer integration, we may also have to take a few steps back once new information arises. One popular Covid-related takeaway is that we can’t see as far into the future as we’d like. Being mindful of any increase in Covid-19 exposure is important.

Check in about checking in. Each employee may have a different need or desire around the frequency of meetings with the boss, but it can be helpful to make yourself available as often as possible so that employees can bring feedback to you during this time of change. Being proactive about checking in with employees can be helpful, too, and you might want to keep check-ins frequent but short.

Finally, be patient and don’t expect perfection. Adjustments are hard and employees need to go at their own pace. Exhibit patience, grace, and flexibility as these changes are underway, prioritising safety always.

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About Vanessa Rose

Vanessa Rose is a certified therapist and writer at Pollack Peace Building
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