Many organizations are facing unprecedented levels of stress among their workers. In fact, studies show that rates of anxiety and depression have tripled as we’ve faced the pandemic, and stress levels are still rising, particularly among women and older employees.

As schools, restaurants, offices and other workplaces reopen, we cannot simply close the door on that chapter and get back to work as if nothing happened. If we hope to ensure that employees are able to resume in-person work with strength, and pull together instead of apart, there are a few steps we must take.

Here are five ways to support employees’ transition back into the office, which can be applied during other times of change as well.

  1. Listen

For workers to feel supported, they first need to feel understood. It may be worthwhile to conduct a survey or hold an all-hands meeting or a facilitated conversation where employees can discuss what they’ve experienced and their concerns. For instance, a recent survey found that 100% of employee respondents were anxious about returning to work, but that reasons for their anxiety varied. For some, it was the risk contracting COVID-19. For others, it was due to the loss of flexible work or resuming an unmanageable commute. Each of these concerns can be addressed, but in different ways. So, just hearing that people are anxious is less useful than understanding why they are anxious. Take the time to practice active listening so that you can better understand your team members.

  1. Acknowledge

It’s important to ensure that employees who open up about their challenges or emotions are acknowledged for what they’ve shared. If the office conducts a survey, for instance, follow up to thank people for participating. If someone participates in a live event like a meeting or focus group, the facilitator should thank the person for sharing their thoughts and experience. When someone discusses something difficult that they’ve faced, they can feel vulnerable. Simply being acknowledged and thanked can make them feel seen and supported, which will lead to a culture of psychological safety — a critical component of productive teams.

  1. Share Information

John F. Kennedy once said, “In a time of turbulence and change, it is more true than ever that knowledge is power.” To help your team members who are feeling overwhelmed and stressed during times of uncertainty, it’s important to share as much information as possible and remain transparent with them. Explain business decisions clearly and completely, answer questions publicly, and be upfront about what isn’t yet known or decided.

  1. Empower

People may need help getting through this time. Ensure that your people are aware of your organization’s flexible work options, mental and psychical health benefits, employee assistance program (EAP), child and elder care, and/or other supports. Spread the word about such resources widely, as it isn’t always clear who needs help. Remember that each person must chart their own path, so make the resources available, and let them decide how or whether to access them.

  1. Return

Supporting your team members through a challenging time is not a one-time event. Follow up later to see how they are doing and whether or not they need additional information or resources.

Supporting others through hardships can subject us to secondary trauma and/or compassion fatigue. As a leader, make sure to prioritize your own well-being through regular self-care activities like exercise and mindfulness, talking about our own challenges, and recognizing when you, too, are running low on energy and may need additional support.

With forethought, planning and commitment, organizations can ensure that this time of distress is an opportunity to build trust, resulting in a stronger workplace and employees who feel supported and engaged.

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