Foreword from our CEO
With vaccinations continuing to roll out and county guidelines allowing for reopening, PureSpectrum, along with most organizations, is beginning to return to the workplace. But our once office-happy team is no longer chomping at the bit to attend in-person meetings and work physically alongside team members. I realized that the last 13 months of lockdown “normality” had affected our team more than we knew. So I reached out to Heather Gibson, Ph.D., to strategize on our “back-to-the-office” approach. We decided to run a survey to see if these themes played out on a national level. Not surprisingly, this anxiety is being felt across America. Below, we share our findings and Dr. Gibson’s recommendations for leaders on how to conduct confident reopening of offices post-COVID.
CEO and Founder of PureSpectrum
Combatting Post-COVID Anxiety in the Workplace
By Heather Gibson, Ph.D.
As a Clinical Psychologist, 2020-2021 has been an extraordinarily crazy year. In 15 years of private practice, I’ve never been busier. One of the hardest things for people to cope with has been the constant uncertainty we’ve faced during the COVID-19 lockdown. Countless social psychology studies have been telling us for decades about the negative impact of uncertain versus predictable adverse events. People have spent the last year trying to adapt to quarantine. And in some cases, have enjoyed aspects of their locked-down life. So now as Americans are being confronted with the unpredictability of reopenings, a new fear arises. The thought of “going back to normal” is overwhelming and anxiety-provoking in its own new way.
Business leaders are seeing this anxiety manifesting in fear of return to work as well. Companies are sensing reluctance on the part of their staff to come back. What does the next phase look like? What will a “return to work” be like? Working with PureSpectrum, we put our observations together and surveyed 1,173 employed men and women to see if the trends we noticed were nationwide. Generally, we found that people are still very undereducated about COVID-19 vaccinations, they are fearful of this unknown next pandemic stage and they are worried about how they will juggle work and family obligations.
Overall, 43% of employees are concerned about returning to work with women reporting to be 13% more concerned than men. When asked why people were concerned, most employees stated that they are hesitant due to health concerns about COVID. I’ve seen this in my practice too. People continue to be very concerned about getting ill or being a “carrier” of COVID, even when already vaccinated. To me, this means businesses are going to have to do a better job educating their staff about the risks of COVID than the CDC and media have done thus far. Less than half of our respondents said they would feel comfortable going back to the office if they were fully vaccinated. Recently the New York Times highlighted the “underselling” of the vaccine news in the media. The medical community has overwhelmingly come out as reporting that the vaccine is highly, highly effective and the likelihood of becoming ill or being a carrier of COVID-19 (or one of its variants) once vaccinated is nil. Yet this is not the message being clearly conveyed. The message about safety once vaccinated needs to be made more clear to people, and businesses may need to take the lead on real education for their employees. This could take the form of workplace training or even just a fact-based memo from a trusted authority to speak to what it means in real life to have a vaccine that is over 95% effective.
When asked about non-health-related anxiety, responses varied. Many concerns regarding managing children were cited along with changing workplace dynamics due to social distancing, mask-wearing, and commuting time. People have figured out new ways to approach work/life balance, and are now worried about leaving their homes. Over 60% of respondents stated they were now more comfortable at home than in an office.
Timelines and expectations are now more important than ever. With the caveat that reopening and local public health guidelines continue to change on a weekly basis, businesses can offer a bit of predictability by providing timelines. People want warning and enough notice to make plans for childcare, fitting back into work clothes, and restructuring schedules. Satisfaction is likely to be higher when companies have reached out to get feedback and take that into consideration. This might take the form of personal conversations between employees and supervisors, or by anonymous surveys to employees in order to promote honest, safe communication.
Businesses are likely to find better job satisfaction from employees if they offer bits of ongoing flexibility too. Exactly what this will look like will vary from site to site, but feedback from employees is important. The vast majority of respondents to our survey indicated a desire for a more flexible in-person / from home hybrid type of arrangement. Most of those surveyed prefer going into the office only one or two times per week whereas only 12% said they wanted to be back in the office full time. Positives for working from home included saving money on gas and lunches, wearing comfortable clothes, and feeling more productive because they don’t have to commute.
Interestingly, in our survey we found most respondents have concerns about returning to work but expressed that they are excited about returning to the “extra-curriculars” of life; movies, restaurants, gyms. Simply put, it’s hard to motivate yourself to go in person to “work” when you haven’t yet been allowed to go in person for “fun”. As local guidelines are changing, my guess is more WFH people will be more eager to be at work once they’ve addressed some of their in-person anxiety with more leisure-type activities. My professional advice is that people should be encouraged to test out leisure activities that feel safe and right to them. We’ve trained ourselves to be afraid for the past year, that fear doesn’t just magically disappear, and we may need to recondition and ourselves.
In conclusion, everyone needs to take responsibility for their own mental health. All of us should consider getting more education about risks and safety levels, which may mean digging a little deeper than the constant news bites warning of new variants. And even though it’s a trendy buzzword, it’s time to practice some self-care. That has been tricky for people during quarantine, and my observations have been that those who have made intentional efforts for self-care have fared much better this year. They’ve been less anxious, less depressed, and less likely to turn to maladaptive coping (e.g. extra drinking, eating). Keep in mind that sometimes “self-care” is doing the dishes, or sitting in your backyard, or stretching for ten minutes. The act of self-care is infinitely less important than mentally acknowledging you are taking some time and intentionally doing something for yourself, no matter how small.
Businesses can help in these areas as well; encouraging and providing education and tools about reopenings, validating and acknowledging the concerns people are having, and setting realistic timeline expectations of returning to the office. This may involve designating an internal point person or an outside consultant for training. Employers might also do a follow-up after a couple of weeks back to get feedback on how employees are feeling about reopening. And while employers and employees will benefit from acknowledging and navigating the difficulties of being in-person, it’s also important to focus on what will be beneficial about a return to work. Reminding ourselves of in-person team advantages will also play an important role. Because no matter how we feel about it, re-openings are happening. And if we all strategically prepare, 2021-2022 can be a smoother ride for everyone.
To watch the corresponding webinar on this topic, please click here.
Thank you for your interest in our survey
If you would like to learn more about our findings or the offerings of the PureSpectrum marketplace, please send us an inquiry and we will be in touch soon.