How to have a healthy return to work: Five tips for employees

Heading back into the office needn’t be stressful. In fact, it could prove to be the opposite…

Every August Bank Holiday, without fail, my parents, who were both teachers, had what they called ‘the back to school’ nightmare. It wasn’t that they didn’t love their jobs, but anxiety about returning to work made itself felt in their dreams.

This year it’s likely it won’t just be teachers experiencing back to work anxiety, as businesses gently nudge their employees back to the office in one way or another. In fact, a recent survey of 4,553 office workers in five different countries by employee experience software company Limeade found that every single one of them was feeling some anxiety about returning to the workplace.

It’s unsurprising. For the last 18 months we’ve all been living with constant change. Gone are the days of the regular commute and the humdrum normality of office life. Now there’s space for reinvention and, while this can create uncertainty, it’s also an opportunity for you to reset your working life, choose when and how to return to office life, and to be more emotionally and mentally healthy when you do.

Heading back into the office needn’t be stressful. In fact, it could prove to be the opposite. Here’s how:

Be open

If living through lockdown has taught us anything, it’s the importance of our mental health as well as our physical wellbeing. Keep calm and carry on is not the way forward anymore, says Nicola Richardson, leadership mentor and team fixer at The People Mentor. “The worst thing you can do is bury your head in the sand,” she explains. “We have a responsibility to be open and honest and […] share how we are feeling with our managers.”

“If your manager or team leader is asking you to go straight back into the office and you feel uncomfortable with that, then you need to ask for a one-to-one and share your feelings. Be clear on what is stopping you from going back and have some reasonable alternatives to share. Without an open and honest conversation, solutions can’t be found.”

Get clarity

The last 18 months have been filled with lots of change and it will take some time to settle into a new rhythm. As businesses work out the practicalities of teams, space and hybrid working, things might continue to feel up in the air. This doesn’t mean there can’t be clarity as you go along, as Emma Gross, an employment partner from city law firm Spencer West explains: “The way forward is allowing people to work at their own pace, with goal-led tasks, but it’s important that measures of success are discussed and agreed in advance so that everyone is clear on expectations. People should expect clear guidance from their managers on tasks, expected results, standards and timescales – and who can be contacted for information and support.”

Having clear boundaries is also important, says Tracey Hudson, executive director of HR Dept. “Presenteeism is dying. The majority of business owners want you to be as effective as possible and the location doesn’t really matter. The key thing is to be clear about the expectations – not being in the office doesn’t mean someone should work longer because they don’t have a commute anymore.” She recommends simple things like keeping your calendar up to date and visible, and marking your work location clearly. “Be consistent if you can so your working days are set days – that reliability really helps with credibility when you are working with a team.”

Mix it up

Research by McKinsey shows that most executives now expect that employees will be on site anywhere between one and four days a week. It’s a radical shift in the way we work, but HR consultant Pip Foulsham urges people to consider it carefully. “It’s important to be realistic. Working at home during the pandemic isn’t necessarily the same as working from home long-term, as it requires a different set of skills to make it work. As an employee, I’d be thinking about what the essential requirements of my job are for my employer, and then overlaying how I work best to discuss that with my manager.”

The switch from an overwhelmingly office-based culture to one that’s more flexible also comes with pressures for people who like to be in an office space or who need a proper space to be productive, as Nick Gallimore, director of talent transformation at Clear Review explains: “While many people enjoy working from their homes and find it a productive place to work, others don’t feel this way. Consider parents who have children at home during the working day, or younger workers who have housemates or are working from their bedrooms.” He encourages people to advocate for their needs, whether that’s to work from home, the office or another workspace.

Give yourself a break

Change is tiring and even the most resilient of us will feel the shift. Something as small and as practical as taking a break can make all the difference, says Richardson. “Go and find a peaceful space that will calm you – whether a break-out space in the office, a recharge room, or a green space nearby. If you’re feeling anxious, take a break and maybe read a book that transports you to a different world. If the news is triggering your anxiety, then stop listening to it, and if social media is having the same effect, then switch it off.”

Be considerate

While team leaders and business owners have a responsibility for setting culture and can take practical steps, like offering a phased return for those feeling more trepidation, every person can play their part in being aware of the differing needs, emotions and anxieties of their colleagues.

“With so long away from the office, workplaces need to be safe places for emotional processing,” says Gross. “Getting used to colleagues’ habits will take some time, and conflict may be more frequent as people make sense of how others have managed their own health and looked after the health of others.”

“It’s important to be really conscious that everyone has different needs and sees the return differently,” says Ruth Kudzi, CEO and founder of Optimus Coach Academy. “Having an open environment where people feel safe and valued and like they can express their emotions and feelings is crucial. When people feel they are able to speak about how they’re feeling and what they have experienced, relationships are developed and strengthened.” Surely a bonus to any business. 

Johanna Derry Hall is a food, travel and design journalist who writes for the Evening Standard, the Telegraph and Mr Porter, among other titles