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Study reveals return to work anxiety as COVID regulations relax

Work-Anxiety-1

As Brits start to return to some sort of workplace normality, many employees are excited to go back to the office and positive about the prospect of reconnecting with colleagues and getting out of the house.

But while this may well be true in many cases, Google search data suggests that for many people the return to the office is a daunting prospect.

In this study, we want to highlight the growing size of the back to work anxiety issue and the specific concerns facing the British workforce in a post-pandemic world.

A fear of change

Google search data reveals a 4,000% increase in the number of people searching the term do I have to go back to work? from March 2020 to June 2020.
The question itself has grown in popularity over the lockdown period, in line with the growing potential of a return to the office.

Many of these searchers have also openly self-identified their fears around returning to work, with the number of searches for fear-related terms also on the up.

The following table shows the year on year increase and a comparison of March to June (the period of lockdown) to indicate the rising size of the issue:

 

Search Query Year on Year Growth Lockdown Growth
Do I have to go back to work? 16,000% 4,000%
Fear of returning to work 200% 200%
Back to work anxiety 425% 567%

 

The propensity of workers to search for these terms should act as a stark reminder to businesses that things are not back to normal, yet. Economically, it makes sense for those who need to be on-premises to return to the office but the official advice remains to work from home if you can.

What the experts say:

Speaking of the anxiety employees are feeling around returning to work, Kevin Rowan, the TUC’s head of health and safety, warned that a huge public awareness campaign was needed to ensure workers know their rights.

“What is the public information message so that people know what employers are required to do, and that there is somewhere they can go to complain?” he said.

“We need to make that more transparent, as well as boosting enforcement.”

Searching for safety

The number of searches relating to workplace safety have increased in response to advice around social distancing and COVID-responsible practices.

Search Query Year on Year Growth Lockdown Growth
Safe workplace 100% 122%
Workplace health and safety 79% 79%
Safety at work 100% 82%
Health and safety practices in the workplace 79% 100%
Employee health and safety 100% 100%

 

What the experts say:

Speaking of the safety concerns faced by employees, Rustom Tata, a partner at leading city law firm DMH Stallard and head of the firm’s employment group, said:

“Many workers, presumably on furlough if they haven’t been able to work for the last couple of months, will still be concerned about the health risks of attending at work without there being very clear provisions in terms of what protective measures are being taken in the workplace.

“For others, the journey to and from work will present a logistical challenge. And that’s before the health risks of travelling on public transport.”

He added: “In most cases, if the employee doesn’t attend work, the employer could notionally seek to dismiss the employee.

“However, in practice that is unlikely to happen. A dismissal would almost certainly be unfair.

“In fact, employees who raise concerns about their safety in the workplace, may be able successfully to claim unfair dismissal with increased compensation and without needing any minimum period of service.”

The new normal?

As well as looking to understand their current situation and alleviate current fears, searchers are also seeking a solution to their perceived ‘new normal’; Google search data reveals an increase in people searching for key benefits such as flexibility in the workplace:

Search Query Year on Year Growth Lockdown Growth
Jobs with flexible hours 82% 67%
Jobs with flexible working 54% 66%
Jobs for homeworkers 121% 181%
Flexible working 82% 67%
Flexible jobs 88% 88%

What the experts say:

Speaking of the changing desires of the workforce, recruitment specialist James Congdon, founder of WithFrontier, said:

“Businesses have always been conscious of the needs of candidates but the pandemic has changed what used to be seen as ‘benefits’ into ‘necessities’.

“To be competitive in the future, businesses will need to allow for increased flexibility – noting, of course, that the technology and processes now exist to do this, meaning it should feel less of a burden to businesses who didn’t allow flexibility before.

“Candidates themselves should feel more confident in asking for benefits like flexibility, knowing that the vast majority of businesses will be able to allow it now, even if it’s not their preference.”

How businesses should respond

As with all things COVID, business owners and leaders will be facing situations unlike any other they’ve experienced before – which means there will always be an element of learning as you go.

At the same time, it’s important that employees feel they have visibility over what’s happening. Oftentimes, it’s those things we don’t understand or lack control in that can cause the biggest issues – even if the problem itself is not such a big deal.

For that reason, leaders should seek to provide as much transparency to their teams as possible. The following considerations should be useful at all levels of a business:

Communicate regularly

Regular communication is key to addressing colleagues’ needs as they arise. Even if your management team is lacking any specific update, it’s still worthwhile setting up team video calls so that members of your team can put forward any concerns or queries.

Facilitate visibility

Allowing teams to gain more visibility, especially over workload or direct reports, is beneficial in empowering them to make decisions and feel in control of what’s happening around them. One example of this is time tracking.

Time tracking often conjures a picture of every minute and hour of your day being pored over by management, but the reality is very different. Time and attendance tracking allows leaders and managers to see the bigger picture of how their teams are getting on; if anyone is being overworked, does a particular team member have more capacity to support, who’s off sick, and who’s working when. This facilitates good team management and can even help identify opportunities for improved productivity, team wellbeing, and even promotions and recruitment.

Allow your team to make the right choices for them

It’s been a period of adjustment but one which has lasted so long, most businesses will have found a way to overcome the challenges and normalised their behaviours. With this in mind, employers should consider how best to accommodate the specific needs of their colleagues, perhaps allowing for them to choose for themselves when to return to the office, and making safety precautions clear so everyone feels as safe as possible.

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