Return anxiety can be addressed before, during, and after the return-to-work transition.
After identifying workplace psychological hazards and anticipating individuals’ responses, employers can act to control the risk to mental health when planning a return to the workplace.
There are several ways employers can address return anxiety, and foster a psychologically healthy and safe workplace:
Identify, monitor, and control workplace stressors
During the return-to-work planning stages, perform an assessment of the workplace to identify potential psychological hazards.
Consider establishing a “return to the workplace” or COVID-19 safety committee to help with this assessment. The assessment team should include a health and safety committee member or representative.
Address as many hazards as possible before the transition period begins.
Once the transition has begun, monitor for the effects of psychological hazards and return anxiety.
Workplace inspection walk-throughs are often used to identify physical hazards and unsafe acts that may cause harm; however, psychological health and safety hazards may be more difficult to recognize.
Some hazards may not become obvious until after people return to work. If workers begin to report excessive stress or anxiety, consider pausing or modifying the planned return schedule, or use the other support tools presented in this tip sheet.
Continue to monitor and review the psychological health of the workplace. Evaluate if the return-to-work plan was successful, and act to resolve any new problems or concerns as they arise.
Seek feedback before, during, and after the return-to-work transition. Ask for input from workers about their fears and concerns related to their return. Include this feedback within the return-to-work plan and consider all options to ease the transition.
Continue to evaluate how well the transition is going. Ask workers about the process to determine what is working and what is not.
Some workers may fear stigma or be uncomfortable discussing sensitive topics with their manager. Provide anonymous feedback options such as a suggestion box, online survey, or speaking with health and safety committee or union representatives.
Use aggregate data from Employee Assistance Program (EAP) service provider reports to see if staff are reaching out for mental health and other supports. This information can help shape your workplace initiatives and interventions.
If workers have unaddressed fears or concerns, work together to determine possible solutions. If a solution is not possible, make sure to explain the reasons.
Communicate changes in advance
Acknowledge that public health guidance may change often as the pandemic evolves. Commit to open communication and frequent updates. Be honest with workers if you do not know the answers to their questions.
Communicate your COVID-19 safety measures before returning to the workplace. Review updated work policies and procedures and explain how each safety measure works.
Outline any disciplinary measures for those who do not follow procedures.
Provide reasonable accommodations as required.
Train and educate leaders
Provide leaders with the tools and resources to foster a psychologically safe and healthy workplace. Make sure that managers and supervisors know how to recognize psychological hazards and address return anxiety.
Consider investing in leadership training and education. Choose courses or programs that will help them support the mental health and well being of their teams. Some suggestions include mental health first aid training, or training on active listening and de-escalation techniques.
Check in with workers
Explain to managers and supervisors the importance of checking in with their team. Having frequent check-ins can increase positivity, foster trust, and boost psychological safety. These check-ins will in turn support workers’ mental health and workplace well being.
Use observational, conversational, and listening skills to identify potential psychological hazards and signs of return anxiety. For example, it may be appropriate to ask workers about the stressors they experience at work. Ask specific questions about how workers are coping with the transition and how it is affecting their work-life balance.
Note and follow-up on worker concerns or complaints. Be compassionate and understand that workers may be stressed or feel anxious. Acknowledge challenges and discuss specific strategies that will help them experience a smooth transition.
The process should be confidential whenever possible, and no diagnosis about a person's state of mental health should be made.
Ease back into the workplace
Moving too fast may be stressful for some workers. Plan a gradual return to the workplace to ease anxiety.
Slowly increase the time workers are required to be at the workplace so they can adjust.
Acknowledge that productivity might be reduced as workers get used to the new routine. Clarify priorities and provide guidance on which projects or tasks to focus on, and those that can be postponed. Be aware that it may take time to get comfortable working together in person again after working independently for an extended period.
Provide mental health support
Workers may seek mental health resources as they return to the workplace. Make sure workers know how to access supports, such as an Employee Assistance Program. Post contact information for local and national mental health support groups, organizations, and programs.
If you have concerns that someone is experiencing a mental health crisis or domestic abuse, call 911 and/or refer to Crisis Services Canada for guidance.
Employers can also provide support by encouraging self-care and sharing resources to cope with stressors. Self-care might include exercise, reading, movies, meditation, or anything else that helps a person be well and to take care of themselves.
Promote work-life balance
Allow and encourage workers to take their breaks, work at a reasonable pace, and avoid overtime as much as possible.
Be aware of personal demands on employees such as childcare, eldercare, or family members with health issues. Discuss potential caregiver resources or solutions that can help promote work-life balance.
Provide guidance on how to maintain a healthy lifestyle outside of work and the importance of disconnecting from work.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown many employers that it is possible to maintain or improve productivity with a remote workforce. Consider asking workers about their work preferences. There may be benefit to ongoing remote work or the setting up a hybrid workplace.