Handling employees’ emotional fallout when returning to the office

April 19, 2022

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By Mark Debus, MSW, LCSW, manager, behavioral health services

Over the past two years, workers’ resilience has been repeatedly tested and challenged.

As a result, many are stronger, more agile, and more adaptive than ever before. At the same time, many workers are drained and reeling from the toll of grief, loss, and uncertainty they experienced during the pandemic.

Employees are reentering the office changed from who they were when they left in March 2020. Many people started their jobs remotely and are now working with their teams in-person for the very first time. Even for longstanding leaders and pre-pandemic employees, returning to the office feels new and different.

For those individuals who have not yet returned to the office, many anticipate doing so will negatively impact their mental health. Meanwhile, leaders may be unsure about how to prepare their team for the emotional change that comes with returning to office. There are specific steps leaders and mid-level managers can take to address these concerns and make their team a psychologically affirming environment for employees as they return to work.

Ask about your employees’ feelings

Even in remote teams, after two years, employees’ feelings about their at-home setup may have shifted over time. Managers and leaders needn’t bear full responsibility for their colleagues’ feelings, but now more than ever, employees want to be seen as a whole people — emotions and all.

One simple way to bring mental health awareness to your team relationships is to ask your colleagues how they’re feeling. Be sure to use the word “feeling” (rather than “thinking” or “doing” language) when you ask. For managers and leaders, it may also help to take brief notes about each employee’s feelings as well as any anecdotes about their life outside of work, particularly any achievements to celebrate and any grief or losses they may be experiencing.

Be flexible

We’re seeing employees and workers value choice, flexibility and agency over their schedule. In practice, flexibility is not always possible, but some autonomy is better than returning to old ways and hard rules. Leaders and managers have the ability — perhaps now more than ever — to be accommodating in certain circumstances while also remaining in charge. Managers should prepare to be adaptable, even when starting back in the workplace, and try to give employees autonomy and choice when circumstances permit. If not, employees might explore their options to find a role or team that provides more flexibility.

Lead by example

Demonstrate to your team what work-life balance looks like. Teams take many unspoken cues from managers and senior leadership. This may mean waiting until Monday to send an email you prepared over the weekend or fully unplugging on your time off. By modeling this behavior, you set a positive example for your team to follow.

Another way to lead by example is through sharing your own personal struggles with your colleagues. There’s no need to be overly revealing or share too personally, but when done selectively, carefully, and with authenticity, this a powerful technique that helps build rapport with others.

Take advantage of benefits

Most companies provide benefits to their employees, as dictated by state laws. Many companies now offer more comprehensive benefits packages including employee assistance programs (EAPs) to help with multiple challenging life situations. We’ve seen in the past two years that employees are discovering and utilizing these benefits packages, at an exponential rate. Leaders can promote their company’s employee benefit programs as another resource for employees who are navigating a return to office or any other challenging work-life situation.

The Great Resignation is not simply about wages or work stress – burnout and mental health stressors are key factors to watch. Prioritizing mental wellness in the workplace is here to stay. It’s important for managers and companies to talk about mental wellness, when appropriate, as part of understanding their employees’ perspective.

Learn more about Sedgwick’s behavioral health solutions here.

Tags: benefits, EAP, Employee, employee health, Employees, Great Resignation, Managed care, Mental health, Mental health care, Mental wellness, Remote workers, resilience, Resiliency, return to office, Return to work, Stress, Stress in the workplace, View on people, Work from home, Work-life balance