Employees wearing masks work at their desks in an office. Employees wearing masks work at their desks in an office.

Returning to the office with anxiety about COVID-19

As COVID-19 vaccines become increasingly available, companies are evaluating whether—and when—to return to the office and what that will look like.

For teams that have been largely or entirely remote for more than a year, organizations would do well to remember that this shift will also be disruptive and anxiety-producing for their employees.

Humans are social animals. The size and strength of our social networks positively correlates with our cognitive function, says Kalina Michalska, assistant professor of psychology at the University of California. “Increased isolation and loneliness can lead to increased risk for cognitive decline.”1

Existing mental health disorders have been exacerbated for many people over the course of the pandemic, and some have developed such disorders for the first time.

“Workplace mental health has been dubbed the ‘second pandemic,’” says Terri Rhodes, chief executive officer of the Disability Management Employer Coalition. “Mental health impacts the employees’ ability to be productive.”2

Some of these struggles are practical, even logistical, and fueled by uncertainty about the answers to the questions employees are asking about returning to the office:

  • Will there be changes to how I do my job?
  • Will I have the tools and skills necessary to succeed in a changed environment?
  • Have expectations changed? How will I know?
  • Is my job secure?
  • Is the company in trouble?
  • Will I be physically safe if I go back to work in the office?
  • What steps are being taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19?

While companies work to answer these same questions, one thing most experts agree on is the importance of communication. “Overcommunicate,” counsels Forbes. “Be honest about what you know, and what you don’t.”3

Communicate about changes to the office environment

Let employees know about enhanced safety measures, such as requiring vaccine records, recent negative test results, temperature checks, mask/personal protective equipment requirements, upgraded ventilation, extra cleaning or sanitizingand/or enhanced, more frequent deep cleanings of the workplace.

If you’re contemplating which of these measures to prioritize, consider soliciting employee input on which changes would best support their comfort level.

You may be considering movable office furniture and an open floor plan to maintain social distancing or floor markings to manage the flow through the office.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends replacing coffee pots and bulk snacks in break room areas with individually packaged items.4

Let employees know about the measures you are taking or considering taking to safeguard their physical safety in the workplace.

Communicate about options

Kim Chan, founder of DocPro.com, says she has adopted a flexible policy about going back to work in the office, even for customer-facing roles typically done better in person. “Except for urgent tasks, it is still good to give flexibility to people,” she says. “When you give employees the flexibility to take care of their priorities, the team is better for it.”5

The decision whether to remain remote, require onsite work, or operate as a “hybrid” workplace, must take into account a variety of factors. One of those factors might be the opportunity to implement schedules and attendance policies explicitly intended to provide for a transition period that can be re-evaluated later.

Some employees might be able to make their own decisions about whether or not to work remotely without a negative impact on productivity. Staggered schedules could be implemented to meet employee preferences and help companies abide by social distancing practices as the delta variant and breakthrough infections complicate the public safety landscape. Allowing employees to work at home on some days could be a cost-saving measure that also allows employees the space to transition gradually into returning to the office.

Communicate clearly, thoroughly and in advance of return-to-work dates as these options are contemplated, and decisions are made.

Be proactive

Many attorneys and other legal observers expect a rise in lawsuits tied to workers’ mental health in response to return-to-the-office mandates by employers.6

There is an expectation that paid time off/leave and/or telework will be requested as reasonable disability accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“I anticipate there will be a flood of litigation from workers who want to continue to work from home,” says Jeff Thurrell, a Fisher & Phillips LLP partner in Irvine, California. And while employers can deny accommodations that cause them an undue burden, it will be difficult for employers to raise that defense if they’ve allowed workers to be remote for more than a year, Thurrell says.7

Companies can be patient, staying alert to signs of distress and encouraging time off for medical appointments and therapy. Be proactive in communicating about employee assistance and wellness programs. Flexible work schedules and a lower-stress (quiet, socially-distanced), onsite environment are ways of offering accommodations that acknowledge the reality of the toll the pandemic has taken on employees before employees demand them.

Be compassionate

“The routines that many of us developed while working from home—a morning walk, an afternoon cup of tea, cooking lunch—offered a cobbled-together sense of certainty, even throughout the worst of the pandemic,” says Dr. Judson Brewer, director of research and innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center. In the office, workers have less control.8

Acknowledge the reality of social anxiety and the discomfort related to returning to the office. Normalize this anxiety and manage expectations. Just as it took time to adjust to working from home, going back to work in the office will also be an adjustment.

The Go365 App allows members to earn Points when accessing the MyLife™ mindfulness journal and Unwinding Anxiety® app. Members can access virtual coaches and other helpful resources to support their health and well-being.

Humana’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and Work-Life Services include confidential, accessible resources to support employees’ health and mental well-being. EAP network providers are trained to assist employees with emotional issues, work-life balance, plus other daily needs and life events.

To find out more about Go365 or EAP, contact your licensed Humana sales agent or request more information about these wellness programs by filling out this formOpens in new window.

Go365 is not an insurance product and is not available with all Humana health plans. This is a general description of services, which are subject to change. Product features may vary by client. Please refer to Customer Support for more information.

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1Iqbal Pittalwala and Holly Ober, “Anxious about returning to work? Psychologists offer insight and tips,” University of California, last accessed October 2, 2021, https://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/news/anxious-about-returning-work-psychologists-offer-insight-and-tipsOpens in new window.

2Erin Mulvaney, “Pandemic Spike in Anxiety, Stress Prompts Office-Return Suits,” Bloomberg Law, last accessed October 2, 2021, https://news.bloomberglaw.com/daily-labor-report/pandemic-spike-in-anxiety-stress-prompts-office-return-suitsOpens in new window.

3Chris Cancialosi, “Return To Work Anxiety? You’re Not Alone,” Forbes, last accessed October 2, 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/chriscancialosi/2021/03/16/return-to-work-anxiety-youre-not-alone/?sh=1e60caf04847Opens in new window.

4Gwen Moran, “9 Ways Your Office Might Be Different Once You Return,” AARP, last accessed October 2, 2021, https://www.aarp.org/work/working-at-50-plus/info-2021/return-to-office-changes/Opens in new window.

5“9 Ways Your Office Might Be Different Once You Return.”

6“Pandemic Spike in Anxiety, Stress Prompts Office-Return Suits.”

7“Pandemic Spike in Anxiety, Stress Prompts Office-Return Suits.”

8Dani Blum, “Feeling Anxious About Returning to the Office? Here’s What You Can Do,” The New York Times, last accessed October 2, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/25/well/mind/return-to-office-anxiety.htmlOpens in new window.