Blog: Anxiety and returning to the workplace

As we start to contemplate the idea of ourselves and colleagues returning to workplaces, even if this may still be some way off, we all need to prepare ourselves for an uncomfortable ride in places.

I think we will all, at some level, feel a little nervous at the idea of a sudden return to immediate proximity to others.  For some of us, we will get over that quickly and enjoy a return to partial ‘normal’.  But for others, especially those who have a more anxious personality, it could be really difficult.

Combining my employment law and HR experience with my more recent coaching psychology training, my expectation is that we will see a lot of situations where colleagues are overwhelmed with anxiety and feel unable to heed the recall to return to their physical workplaces.  Or, if they do come in, they will find it hard to be there.

There is, of course, quite a lot to be potentially anxious about, such as travelling on public transport, being close to colleagues, close contact with customers and about the sharing of personal health information – just for a start.

With those who are aware of their anxieties and comfortable in expressing them to their manager and colleagues, this may feel disruptive to an organisation but understandable in the circumstances.  After all, we’ve all been freaked out to a degree by the COVID crisis.  I expect such people will receive some empathy and understanding (at least for a while).

But what life and my own personal development have taught me is that many people are not consciously aware of their anxieties.  And then there are those that are (semi) aware, but don’t feel comfortable admitting to such things, particularly not to their line manager or HR, for fear of being perceived as ‘weak’ or somehow ‘less than’.  As a man, I feel able to suggest that perhaps quite a few men (sorry, men!) might fall into this category.  I will admit that perhaps the ‘old Luke’ would have been such a person.

And it is this potentially huge category – those who are anxious about a return to the workplace but without being aware of that anxiety, or at least not having the capacity to easily admit it to their employer and colleagues – where I see the possibility of a huge amount of dispute, grievances, disciplinaries and, sadly, dismissals.

It doesn’t require much imagination to see how such (perhaps unconscious) anxiety could emerge indirectly in other ways which will provide HR headaches.   Anxiety that emerges as a concern around Health & Safety and perhaps around data protection over a person’s personal health data might well develop into grievances and whistle-blowing disclosures.  A downright refusal to comply with an instruction to return to work or serve customers face-to-face could eventually become a disciplinary and even a dismissal (alternatively, a constructive dismissal).

We could quite feasibly be up to our necks in grievances and disciplinaries in some workplaces, with the added legal risks associated with such issues, such as unfair dismissal compensation being available to employees from day 1 of employment if the dismissal (or constructive dismissal) relates to any Health & Safety concern that turned into whistle-blowing.

There is a great deal I could go into here, but the short point I want to make is that an orderly and dispute-free return to workplaces is only going to be made possible by how people feel about their return and their safety.  That’s going to require heroic levels of great comms and great empathy from line managers, leadership and of course HR.

In particular, when we come across a colleague getting very worked up about Health & Safety, data protection or other legal or compliance issues related in some way to their return to the workplace, I invite us to all say to ourselves “Perhaps this is actually more to do with this person’s underlying anxiety about Coronavirus and their return to work than it is about the actual thing they are complaining about”.  And encouraging all line managers to hold the same thought in mind.

And then, rather than just pressing the ‘start’ button on the grievance process or the disciplinary process or the whistle-blowing procedure, instead starting by having an empathetic chat with the employee by asking things like “How are things for you?”, “How are you feeling about the return?”.  And normalising their worries by saying things like “I think we all feel quite worried about this” and “Same here”.

Yes, some people will of course become locked into a downward spiral of dispute and conflict with your organisation that will not have a happy ending.  You can probably guess who one or two of them might be.  A crisis tends to make us revert to the more extreme end of our personality, after all.  For them, you may just have to let the process play itself out.

But if, as I suspect, there is a big spike in workplace complaints and disputes as returns to work take place, I am hopeful that the majority of them will come from those who, most of the time, are reasonable, hard-working colleagues who are just really worried about what is going on and have a completely rational fear of illness and death.  For them, a great big dose of empathy, understanding and flexibility is the best medicine.  And not just from HR, since you probably know all this already, but also from all your line managers and your executives.  They may become very frustrated and of course will be battling their own anxieties at the same time.

My view (and I bet you never thought you’d read this in a lawyer’s blog) that it is compassion, not procedure, that is going to be the way to solve many of these disputes.

If you’d like to talk about any these issues, do please get in touch with me.

Luke Menzies
Director

Email Luke or call 0117 325 0921