Return to office anxiety: What does it mean for absenteeism?

By Tom Whiley | Absence | 5 min read

No matter how much employees love their jobs, it seems that a lot of employees don’t like going to work.

It’s not the work itself that’s off-putting. It’s everything that comes with the work itself: Long commutes, office politics, endless meetings, bland or downright unpleasant working environments – all of these factors can contribute to employee stress and burnout. So all of these factors can lead to increased absenteeism.

For many UK employees, the enforced government lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 provided a welcome respite from all of these unwanted aspects of the working day. And now that the government seems intent on lifting all lockdown restrictions for good, many employees seem reluctant to return to work.

The dreaded commute

It seems that everywhere you look, you’ll find people lamenting the end of lockdown and remote working.

The Guardian asked readers to share their thoughts about returning to work post lockdown. One reader described returning to work as “completely unfair” and “a stress I do not need in my life.” She said that the very idea of commuting fills her with “fear and dread.”

Deeper fears

For some employees, the dread of returning to work won’t be based on a reluctance to give up the relative ease and flexibility of remote working. Many will still be worried about the risks of Covid-19.

The government is planning on easing social distancing and mandatory masking measures. For anyone still worried about the virus, the thought of a cramped commute, followed by a day in a cramped office, could be the stuff of nightmares.

Harvard Business School has found that 8o% of workers don’t want to go back to the office full-time. If employers don’t act to address their employee’s concerns and meet their needs, they may face a wave of unplanned absences – and even a few resignations. Even huge companies such as Apple have seen backlash from employees.

THREE ways employers can help employees return to the office

A collection of firms wrote to the PM requesting that he back a series of measures, including increased funding for public transport. The government’s also introduced flexible tickets to help commuters save money as they return to work after lockdown.

But beyond government intervention, there are many things employers can do to help their staff ease back into the workplace.

Be open, honest, and reasonable

If you tell employees that you “expect” them to return to the workplace full-time, expect a lot of pushback. So instead, be reasonable.

Make it clear to employees that you understand their reservations, and that you’re willing to be flexible. You might also remind employees of the many positive aspects of returning to the workplace – such as a chance to see colleagues again, and a better work/life balance.

Make changes to the workplace

Remember, some workers might still be worried about the virus. So try to allay these concerns where you can, whether that’s with extra handwashing facilities, or even placing new barriers between working areas.

One of the workers the Guardian interviewed said that he “cannot wait” to start commuting again “once it’s safe”. It’ll take time for these fears to fade completely. But if there’s anything you can do to make employees feel more at ease in the workplace, it might make a huge difference.

Be flexible

Through lockdown, many employees tried flexible working for the first time. Many found that they liked it. So why not make flexible working the new normal?

If you’ve never considered a flexible working policy before, now’s the perfect time to think about it! Read our full guide to getting started here.

Look after your employees, and help them look after themselves

Bupa released some helpful guidance on return-to-work anxiety. They encourage employees to practice mindfulness, stay active, look after their wellbeing, and seek help for anxiety and other conditions.

There are many ways you can help employees look after their wellbeing. Filling the office with plants and introducing a company wellbeing program is a good start. But it’s also a good idea to pay attention to your absence data.

With an absence management system, you can track absence trends and set triggers for automatic alerts. That way, if any of your employees are showing signs of stress or suffering, you can intervene and offer your support long before things spiral into a full-blown crisis.

Our absence management system also allows employees to access the NHS wellbeing module and virtual GP services. So if employees need help with any aspect of their physical or mental health, you can provide them with a fast track to getting the help and support they need. For any employees anxious about returning to work, this sort of support could be a dealbreaker.

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