With lockdown restrictions easing and the country tentatively feeling its way through the early stages of our new normal, the prospect of returning to the workplace is raising anxiety levels for many of us.
As businesses invite their people back into the workplace, managers are likely to be dealing with emotional responses from their teams, driven by concerns about the practicalities and risks of returning to work.
“How will I get to work safely?”
“Is there a screen around my desk now?”
“Is the communal kitchen safe to use?”
“Is PPE being provided or do I need to bring my own?”
“What if I get infected and bring it back to my home?”
These concerns and emotional responses will result in new types of difficult conversation with team members, and when we’re dealing with anxiety, we need to remember that everyone is individual and will be reacting and coping differently. As such we need to make sure that we’re approaching these conversations with compassion and understanding.
Keep It Personal
Difficult conversations are ones we tend to prepare for, and whilst having the key points noted down can help you focus and not lose track, allowing the conversation to grow out of a few key questions and demonstrating genuine curiosity will help to create rapport and trust.
We must always be mindful of our own views and feelings on returning to work, as these can seep into the dialogue. Leading questions such as; “It’s great news isn’t it?”, “We’re all really looking forward to things getting back to normal are you?” could add to the isolation and anxiety individuals may be experiencing.
Try something along the lines of “I wanted to talk about returning to work and understand what your thoughts and feelings were about that” – this sets a more supportive tone than “I wanted to talk to you about your return to work next week”.
Make It Two Way – Share the Ownership
Understanding what may be difficult for our team members, and what their stresses and anxieties might be allows us to have a two-way conversation.
It’s important to appreciate therefore, that responding to an individual who is experiencing stress isn’t about having all the answers, and this isn’t what the focus of our conversation should be. The Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England training recognises that listening non-judgementally and encouraging colleagues to consider what resources or support they already have available is, in itself, a demonstration that we “hold hope”. It also supports people beyond this event, meaning they are more likely to consider these factors first if they find themselves struggling in the future.
Following up with questions around what we can do to support them, or make things easier, and agreeing together what the combined next steps will be is a more effective approach than telling the individual what we think they should do.
Team members’ concerns about a return to work will be diverse and we may not be able to anticipate them all, but we can be ready for what is likely. The Government has set out guidance on how employers can ensure a safe return to work for their employees.
There may be other factors specific to our sector or workplace, which we can foresee being a concern to our people. We can be ready for this, and if we don’t have the answers, we should be honest and clear in terms of how, and when, we may be able to respond, and acknowledge that this lack of information is of understandable concern. Our timely follow up of this request for more information will build trust far more readily than our ‘not knowing right now’ will erode it.
If our organisation has an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) we must make sure we signpost this. Most EAPs have a counselling service and advice on family and financial problems. It may have been mentioned at induction and be on notice boards at work, but this is unlikely to be something our colleagues will think about accessing unless it’s signposted. There is evidence to suggest that low level promotion of EAP results in use during crisis and situations which have already reached a serious stage only, so promoting this service more often may mean it’s utilised before crisis point.
Anxious conversations will become commonplace for many of us in the weeks and months to come. As we all navigate the changing landscape of work in the new normal, we’ll be faced with situations we’re unused to dealing with. At ted Learning our suite of #new normal courses provide leaders, managers and team members with practical tools to support themselves and others at this challenging time