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Dealing with return-to-work stress

Planning your plans around COVID-19


August 14, 2020

You’re all set. You have your laptop and internet connection; your favorite coffee mug is within arm’s reach and the background for the virtual meeting is in place. Then it happens: The cat decides the computer keyboard makes a great napping spot and, in the process, knocks over the coffee mug, spilling coffee over the report you are about to present. That emergency is drowned out by the kids fighting the next room over and your partner is yelling at you because their virtual meeting is disrupted by the kids.
Working from home is great, right?
The new normal may be anything but normal, and the playbook remains to be written. OK, so how do we help our employees handle this stress during this unconventional time? While working from home hasn’t been ideal for everyone, there’s still trepidation about heading into the office. According to a survey conducted by the Society of Human Resources, 25% of employees are expressing anxiety over returning to the office. Employees indicate concerns with how health might be impacted, job security and financial uncertainty.
While the focus of this article is about issues related to returning, several points also address people working from home, at least in a hybrid model. A recent study by the Conference Board suggested that remote working will become the norm, or at least a widely practiced solution for many employers. Ninety-nice percent of respondents to a Willis Towers Watson survey suggested remote work would give them greater flexibility with their schedule, more family time and improved work-life balance. Eighty percent of respondents of the same survey indicated they are experiencing less stress and better health. Employees also reported that they estimate saving as much as $7,000 in annual expenses on food, clothing, childcare and commuting.
Whether you have remote workers or employees onsite, here are seven components to consider:

Acknowledge the varying issues employees face

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread, employees are experiencing significant changes in their lives. These issues are different for each employee and they may include social unrest, childcare challenges, return-to-school preparation, grief, underlying health conditions, family members who are vulnerable and a lack of family support due to social distancing or just plain distance. And the misnomer about introverts embracing a life of solitude? We’re all struggling with a drastic change in human interaction in light of this public health crisis.

Workplace physical and mental health

A big part of stress is related to change and uncertainty. The evolving dynamics of COVID-19 increases this stress. Will employers reassure employees that all steps are in place to protect them at work? Social isolation and uncertainty over job security and the inability to return to normalcy with family gatherings, changes in work routines, video meeting fatigue, etc., also lead to increased stress.This stress can be expressed as anger, fear, isolation, depression, withdrawal and lack of decision-making. When people experience fear, they try to exert control in whatever situation they can, but the results are often destructive. They might lose their temper with their kids, partner or their colleagues — that doesn’t make for a good work environment. We find that managers, in particular, tend to exhibit bullying and micromanaging when stressful situations like this arise; it’s a way for them to reclaim control in uncertain times. Be alert to these behaviors so it can be quickly identified and addressed. Provide alternatives and support for employees needing assistance.  

Post resources in the work locations and online for employees. Be quick to refer employees to professional help as needed. Most organizations provide a free Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) and mental health resources. List additional support systems available, such as mentors, peer groups, mental health services through insurance, county mental health and online support for parenting, therapy, doctor tele-visits, suicide prevention, stress eating support, etc.

Encourage employees to make time for physical exercise, walking and anti-stress programs, such as yoga (with proper distancing and cleaning protocol). 

Different approaches for employees based on personal needs may include continued remote access, staggered work schedules and other flexible arrangements. Also note potential accommodation issues under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Set boundaries and clear expectations with adjustments as appropriate

The situation continues to be fluid based on updated COVID-19 data and employee issues. Try to establish a routine and “normalcy” while acknowledging ongoing change will continue as more is learned about the virus.  

Responses to employee needs may vary based on the situation; be open and flexible when maintaining boundaries based on work needs. Keep employees informed and have clear expectations about performance, accountability, work-product deliverables and deadlines. In the workplace, define visitor rules, mask rules and social distancing policies. While working remotely, confirm work hours and when people should be available for work-related calls; accommodate parents with childcare issues. etc. 

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Establishing a clear communication plan allows employees and customers to understand how the organization plans to reopen or reestablish business processes. Business leaders must communicate frequently about how and why decisions are being made and what is being done to keep employees safe. Communication is a two-way street. Employees need to trust that employers are keeping their personal safety needs top of mind and are open to listening and addressing concerns as employees transition back to the office. Uncertainty is the enemy of good management. With continued updates and ongoing communication, leaders may dissipate fear and understand employees' concerns. This is especially true in this rapidly changing environment.

Communication topics to cover may include:

Mask and personal protective gear requirements.
  • Changes to policies, such as work schedules, doctor notices for prolonged absences, how staying home if sick and physical distancing policies, are being used to protect workers and customers.
  • Have exposure-response communications ready to go to any affected employees and customers.
  • Have communications ready to release on topics, such as return-to-work timetables, safety protections in place (see No. 6 to follow), and how else the company is supporting workers and customers.

Minimize meetings

While communication is important, the choice of medium during a pandemic is critical. While Zoom and other platforms were kind of cool new toys in the spring, they can quickly become intrusive and disruptive. Have daily touch points for remote workers but find alternative ways to minimize interactions for employees in the office while maintaining social distancing. Address issues employees may be feeling with social isolation and keep connected. 

Building a safe work environment

Provide employees with details on cleaning and response protocol, including their responsibilities.  Post or electronically share the COVID-19 Preparedness Plan, which was required to be established by June 30. Build scalable contingency plans based on Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Minnesota Department of Health directives, including a response if an employee tests positive. Take employee temperatures at the start of each shift.

Train managers on key symptoms and what to do if an employee refuses to wear a mask. Provide masks, gloves, face shields and sanitizing sprays/lotions. Have employees wear masks while in face-to-face meetings or when social distancing is not possible. Consider plexiglass partitions in open office areas. Increase cleaning efforts, notify building staff and cleaning crews. You should also post Return-to-Work protocols and COVID-19 required posters (See

Establish the following policies and protocol:

Detail what training on new workplace safety and disinfection protocols have been implemented.

Physical distancing measures within the workplace:
  • Masks at work requirements.
    • Handwashing and sanitizers.
    • Staggered shifts and lunch/rest breaks.
    • Rotating weeks in the office and working remotely.
    • Moving workstations to increase separation distance.
    • Implementing one-way traffic patterns throughout workplace.
  • Restricting business travel:
    • Start with essential travel only and define what that is.
    • Follow government guidance to ease restrictions over time.
  • Defining customer and/or visitor contact protocols:
    • Directing customer traffic through workplace.
    • Limiting the number of customers in any area at one time.
    • No handshake greetings; remain 6 feet apart.
    • Using video or telephone conferencing instead of in-person client meetings.
    • Providing contactless pickup and delivery of products.

Be kind

Provide occasional thank you notes, and show appreciation by delivering gift bags, gift cards and other items at employees’ home, and consider providing lunch delivery, food in the office, flowers and other items. Encourage an atmosphere of support and kindness. Create and maintain a culture of, “We’re all in this together,” and a “Espirit de corps” environment. 

Ready to roll, react

Planning will go a long way in easy the transition back to the office, both for management and employees. If your employees don’t feel comfortable in the office, their work will suffer, which is a losing proposition for everyone in the organization. Based on employee response, as well as what comes in the future related to the pandemic, get ready to change course when needed.
Larry Morgan runs the MNCPA HR Hotline and is president of Orion HR Group, LLC. He is a regular contributor to Footnote. You may reach him at