15 tips for employers to help employees to cope with returning to the workplace


In her latest podcast for Discovery, clinical psychologist Dr Colinda Linde speaks to employers about understanding the anxieties and discomfort people have around returning to the workplace during the COVID-19 pandemic. She shares 15 key insights for business leaders.

Dr Linde speaks to key aspects of business preparedness and business continuity in the time of COVID-19 in her latest podcast for the “Discovery: Understanding COVID-19” podcast series. Dr Linde is a regular contributor to the series.

-         Did you know that this podcast is a part of the Discovery COVID-19 podcast series? Find this podcast and many others on Discovery’s COVID-19 podcast hub. Our workplace-related podcasts are listed under COVID-19 and the changing world of work.

Dr Linde has advice for employers and employees

“Many people are uncomfortable about going back to ‘normal life’ and especially back to the workplace in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic” says Dr Linde. “We usually see generalised anxiety levels of around 3 to 8% in a population. Now, from leaders or business owners to employees, more and more people are being diagnosed with anxiety.”

“Anxiety often stems from the unknown. So, to tackle anxiety, we must try and make things as ‘known’ and transparent as possible. It’s especially important to do this if you are a business leader. If the leader is feeling overwhelmed and anxious, it’s definitely going to carry through to the staff. Anxiety can lead to a person making poor decisions. Also, employees tend not to trust anxious leaders. Anxious employees are also going to keep asking themselves “What if?” and “What’s going to happen?” And they’re going to be focusing on potential threats, so they’re certainly not going to be productive.

Dr Linde’s top 15 tips for employers

  1. Only bring back the staff you need to the workplace. Do so in phases, and at all times communicate the plans well in advance to staff.
  2. Try to give staff reasonable periods of notice of when they’ll be expected to come back to normal working conditions, because many people will need to plan for childcare or other aspects of life. So, the more notice you give, the less you’ll be adding to the existing list of worries employees have.
  3. How many people can you safely bring back to work? How will you will enforce the regulations around physical distancing? Adjust the office layout accordingly.
  4. Make sure that you have adequate stock of all the items required to ensure hygiene in the office like sanitisers, hand soaps and paper towels.
    • Depending on your industry, you might need to supply personal protective equipment for staff. You might need barriers or protective screens between people so make sure that you’ve got these things on hand.
    • Make sure that you’ve got masks in stock at work for people who haven’t got their masks on them. Sometimes when you’re rushing out, you forget the most basic things – even our masks. So, try and think for people, especially when they are in their phase of readjustment.
  5. Put up reminders of hygiene requirements, hand-washing protocols, use of sanitisers and so on. So maybe spend a little time looking at how you can make things a little bit lighter and make our ‘new normal’ a little bit more palatable at work.
  6. Do a thorough cleaning and an airing before the workplace reopens and ensure you have a regular cleaning schedule going forward.
  7. Make provision for staff who are at high risk of severe illness if they contract COVID-19 (or those who live with high-risk people) to work remotely as long as possible.
  8. Before people come back, set up one-on-one virtual meetings (if possible) with every single person, or with teams if the company is large. Share information and listen to staff concerns. Address any worries about their physical and mental wellbeing, and specific anxieties about returning. Be open to any suggestions or information people have that they’d like to share.
  9. Keep in mind that many of your staff are now used to working at home, so you’ll need to give people plenty of time to familiarise themselves with working in the office again. This goes for leaders as well.
  10. You might want to set up weekly one-on-one meetings to regularly check in with people when they come back and assess what’s working and what isn’t.
  11. It’s very helpful to share and communicate around the steps the business is following to safeguard employees’ health and how employees can protect themselves when they’re back in the office. This will definitely help to settle everybody.
  12. Make sure that the company health protocols are clear and accessible. This includes all protocols around staying safe and hygiene practices, as well as what happens when a staff member develops symptoms of COVID-19 or tests positive.
  13. Make sure staff know about the emotional support options available to them. Remind people about employee assistance programmes or helplines on offer and how to get in touch. Also remind them that it’s confidential. And if you don’t have those set up, then access other information on where people can find support, so for example the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) website which offers telephonic counselling free of charge.
    • If you are looking to establish an Employee Assistance Programme within your business, you can contact Discovery Healthy Company to assist you to set this up.
    • Some employees have lost loved ones to COVID-19 or other factors in recent months. Use your discretion around when they’ll be ready to come back to work and what you can expect in terms of their work delivery.
  14. Remote working has become the new normal and it’s also become really important in terms of business continuity. We may face stricter lockdowns in future if the virus should peak again or if anything else should change. We may have to close divisions within the office to deal with a localised COVID-19 outbreak. Try to be as technologically agile as possible.
    • For those staff members who have to self-quarantine or self-isolate, technology that keeps them connected to the office and their teams is fundamental to ensuring they remain on board, able to work from home when feeling well enough, and feel less alone.
  15. Be clear when it comes to money matters. What will be paid? When? And, if you can, try to be clear on what you’re projecting will happen over the next month or two. Staff will benefit if they have some sense of leaders’ decision-making and plans (those that are appropriate to share), because this prevents snowballing negative rumours.

Watch this video about returning to the workplace


Change is never easy

“For all of us, this is a time that’s testing our patience, our courage, our resilience, our adaptability,” says Dr Linde. “We are all learning new ways of living and working. Please remember that we do need to take care of ourselves and ask for help when we need it. Just because you’re a business owner, a leader or a manager that doesn’t mean that you don’t need some support and some help at times – and a bit of time out from work sometimes as well. Nobody knows how long the current situation we are facing is going to last or what the world of work is going to look like going forward.”

“What we do know is that we had a phase of adjustment to lockdown and a phase of adjustment to working from home. We’re now in a new phase of adjustment to coming back to the office. We are continually learning about the impacts of this disease on our mental health. For now, it’s key to do this phase one day at a time and ensure we are as supported, agile and resilient as possible.”

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