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Over the last year and a half, Thrive4Life has placed much emphasis on the impacts of remote working on the health and wellbeing of staff.

The pandemic resulted in over half of the UK’s workforce transitioning from office-based to remote working, forcing many employees to confront a variety of new challenges. These have ranged from the health risks associated with more sedentary lifestyles and poorer nutrition, to dealing with the challenges of isolation, loneliness, poor work/life balance, burnout and struggling to switch off.

The “return to the workplace” rush that commenced last week in major cities across the UK may well bring a sigh of relief to those who have been confined to remote working conditions. Yet this latest phase in the reopening of Britain is not without its own set of challenges. Businesses should continue to place staff wellbeing at the top of their agendas as employees across the country embark on yet another major transition in their work lives. This will be critical to maintaining work productivity, staff retention and employee satisfaction going forward.

On 6 September 2021, the reopening of Britain gathered pace as many employees returned to workplaces and commuter traffic soared to pre-pandemic levels in big cities. While this is a welcome change for many businesses, it has also been a stressful time for workers, as jam-packed trains and crammed commuter bodies have quickly become the norm once again.

Our wellbeing team has spoken to numerous workers over the past few days to catch a glimpse of what has been going through people’s minds.

“My first day commuting to work was not what I expected. The trains were packed and unlike anything I have seen in the past year. I wasn’t quite sure what to do,” says one employee we spoke to at length. “The office hasn’t provided much guidance, so I felt quite unprepared for it all.” These words represent a familiar situation for those who have had to travel to work over the last two weeks.

“Communication in general has been poor. Our firm simply requested we come back, but they haven’t told us what to expect in the office. I’m not sure what everything will be like”, says another London-based employee we spoke to. Our findings from conversations with numerous workers suggest that communication, guidance and general support may be an area that is lacking as workforces begin their return.

The major hurdles to overcome

Changes to public transport and poor communication are just two of the problems that have come up during our conversations with workers. Some others include:

  • Stress from changes to work routines
  • Fear of what employees will encounter when returning to the office
  • Anxiety resulting from increased exposure and social activity
  • Lack of general support and understanding from managers
  • Depression from the thought of returning to a “normal” work routine
  • Frustration with colleagues who do not relate to the situation in the same way

These problems reveal the importance of having a strong, interconnecting employee wellbeing strategy in place to deal with the new set of challenges staff will have to face.

“I want to take our new office policies seriously and abide by the rules, but I feel that others constantly undermine them,” remarks one employee speaking about her anxieties around social distancing. “It’s strange being back in an office environment where people move about freely. I’m not used to it. But my colleagues need to respect that. This is a very stressful time for some of us,” she explains.

As workplaces begin finding their new normal again, business leaders will need to find ways to manage the stress and anxiety of employees. This will entail making sure that managers are prepared and creating support structures for those who are experiencing difficulty adjusting.

Ensuring that employees feel safe and supported is key to the long-term success of any organisation in the current environment, with much of this boiling down to organisational culture and trust. Businesses that communicate clearly with staff and invest in their wellbeing will reap the rewards of higher employee satisfaction, motivation and overall output.

Returning to the workplace is as much about psychological barriers as it is about increased health concerns. This means that extra effort must be made to reassure staff that their safety is being looked after.

Returning to the workplace with a bang

What are successful organisations doing to facilitate a safe and supportive return to the workplace? Beyond creating new policies for the office, they are all prioritising staff wellbeing.

Training and education are key to a successful transition. Businesses should ensure that managers receive the training they need to effectively support others, and that the entire workforce is educated about the challenges they will be facing. Organisations need to break stigmas around mental health by encouraging employees to talk openly about their concerns. This is critical for learning more about their needs as a group.

Wellbeing Champions and Mental Health First Aiders can be a valuable resource in empowering co-workers to help each other and drive your organisation’s wider employee health and wellbeing strategy.

You may also want to arrange regular educational talks, webinars and newsletters to raise awareness and make staff feel supported.

Businesses should take an active interest in the needs and concerns of employees, focusing on both the positives and the negatives. Try asking your staff what is most important to them in returning to the workplace. You might be surprised by some of the answers you get. Some of these may include:

  • Flexible working hours
  • Feeling like a team again
  • Opportunities for hybrid working
  • Getting the office atmosphere back
  • Improving your work/life balance
  • Accessible health and wellbeing support

The image is not all negative when it comes to planning your organisation’s “return to the workplace”. There are many factors that staff are feeling optimistic about, and these should guide your transition.

“I’m looking forward to improving my work/life balance”, says an employee we spoke to. “It’s been really difficult to maintain boundaries and switch off while working from home. My office has already expressed commitment to helping us adjust.”

It is possible to facilitate your return to the workplace with a bang and build on the optimism of your employees. However, this needs to be done in a considered and planned-out way. Listen and communicate with staff non-judgmentally, identify relevant concerns, and build the necessary support around this.

Thrive4Life is by your side in assisting businesses with their transition to office-based or hybrid working.
Our tailored health and wellbeing consultancy, training courses, educational webinars, staff initiatives and injury prevention solutions are designed to help your employees thrive, even in the most challenging of environments.

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