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Freedom Day? Why Businesses Can’t Afford to Ignore ‘Return-to-Work’​ Anxiety

by Ngozi Weller

July 22, 2021

Whether it brought you delight or despair, Monday marked the end of COVID restrictions throughout England, and for many, this meant a return to office life. Whilst lots of people may be glad of the chance to see their colleagues outside of the temperamental setting of a Zoom meeting, after over a year away, nearly everyone will likely be experiencing some level of anxiety over being plunged into an in-person environment. Lockdown altered our routines; we interacted with fewer people, and even then, only in a virtual sense. Consequently, returning to daily meetings may seem very overwhelming in the initial stages.

Moreover, many individuals still feel very uncomfortable with the government’s decision to scrap all social distancing measures in one go. Some employees, especially those who experienced or witnessed the damaging effects of the COVID-19 virus, are likely feeling very anxious about the removal of compulsory face masks and the metre distancing rule. I know that in the months following my own COVID experience, I was incredibly anxious about the possibility of re-exposure, and it’s only very recently that these fears have begun to abate.

Let’s not forget that, as recently as April, new research by Instantprint reported that 7% of workers said they would not feel ready to return to the workplace before 2022, and 8% stated that they would never feel comfortable returning to the office at all. When scaled up, these figures argue that 2.5 million members of the UK workforce will have felt very uncomfortable with Monday’s changes. The unavoidable truth is that what represents freedom for some will invariably cause suffering for others. This catch-22 can be very hard for employers to navigate, as there is no one-size-fits-all approach that can be taken.

It also doesn’t help that the pandemic has already been a terrible time for employee wellbeing. A national trend suggests that psychiatric conditions have risen across the board, with various studies directly linking COVID-19 to the rise in new psychiatric disorders. In other words, the pandemic is not just triggering pre-existing mental health conditions, but it is also generating mental health conditions in entire new members of the population. For example, OLS regression analysis from ‘what works wellbeing’ suggested that for a given population of one million, 100 new COVID-19 cases would lead to 7200 more cases of anxiety. Ultimately, this psychiatric increase is understandably having a negative impact on life satisfaction, which according to the ‘Living, working, and COVID-19’ study, conducted by Eurofound, has declined significantly across major European countries, some places by as much as 17%.

Very few people are currently working at their best and brightest, not with the year we’ve had. Therefore, unless we take care to support the national drive towards returning to in-person work, some employees are likely to drop off. Not only is this concerning in and of itself, but it can cause a larger knock-on effect. Therefore, even if only a handful of your team members are showing reluctance about returning to the office, the consequences of ignoring them could be severe. 

If you have recognised the signs of ‘return to work’ anxiety amongst members of your workforce, you must take appropriate measures if you wish to maintain a productive standard of employee wellbeing. The new few months will be a pivotal stage of transition for many, and with mental ill health costing employers an estimated £45 billion a year, it is clear that there is a severe cost to inaction.

At Aurora Wellness we are all about mental wellbeing & productivity. To discover ways in which you can empower your people and maximise their full potential, contact us for information about our face to face and online mental wellbeing and productivity programmes.

I support HR and people managers with the tools they need to make managing workplace wellbeing for their employees easy.

Ngozi Weller,
Aurora Wellness