By M. Penny Levin, Ph.D.

As workplaces slowly begin to reopen, many organizations are welcoming their employees back. However, employers may find that their employees have changed during the COVID shutdown. Specifically, what they’re feeling and their expectations of the workplace environment may be very different than they were before the pandemic. Here’s what the HR Consulting Firm of NJ believes organizations and managers may want to keep in mind as employees return to work.

How Employees Are Coping

While it may seem counterintuitive, people are having more trouble coping than when the pandemic started. That’s happening for two reasons:

  • There’s less certainty in the short term. Initially, at least in this part of the country, we all knew we were staying put. Returning to the workplace was not an option, and most people made peace with that reality. As employees now plan to return to the workplace, they face a good deal of uncertainty.
  • The other reason is that typically motivation increases as we approach a goal. The way that seems to translate right now, the closer we get to opening up, the more excited people are getting and the more they are considering the implications of going back to an actual office with other people. After so many weeks with no options, people are having trouble re-thinking their comfort level with others as they face choices that were routine pre-COVID.

The anxiety is widespread. Questions that measure whether respondents are feeling anxious or depressed, included in a recent weekly emergency survey done by the Census Bureau, showed that 34% of Americans are showing signs of clinical anxiety or depression. This finding represents a significant increase from pre-pandemic surveys.

Your employees are no different.

As they return, your employees likely have questions about going back to work after COVID, especially if they have children. Schools are closed, and summer camps may or may not open. Unless a parent was lucky enough to depend only on a nanny for the past few months, childcare may be difficult to find and may require close contact with others not previously in the family’s “bubble.”

What is most important at this time is to support your employees with empathy, information, and transparency. Even if the answer to an employee’s question is “No” or “I don’t know, but I’ll try to find out,” that’s better than silence.

What Employees Need to Know

Employees will want to know in advance what the procedures will be for opening the workplace and keeping them safe. That’s going to vary by type of organization, size, contact with the public, and other factors. Many people are going to want to continue to work from home, especially if their workplace is crowded or features an open office plan where close contact is difficult to avoid.

Employees will want to know if hours or days will be staggered, if masks and sanitizers will be provided, and whether cleaning and disinfecting will be a priority. What will happen if a co-worker tests positive, or if they do? Will sick workers or those who prove to be asymptomatic carriers be required to stay home? Will they be paid?

These and other important questions are best answered in comprehensive policies that are communicated to employees proactively before they return to work. Be prepared for questions.

How to Reduce Employee Stress

Managing stress means understanding the relationship between stressors and resources, and that means employee engagement. When the stressors in the world are high, just getting through the day uses a lot of physical, emotional, and psychological resources. That leaves fewer resources for managing additional stressors, such as planning a return to work or finding childcare.

Activities that reduce stress are well-known and may include diet, exercise, meditation, or if needed, counseling or therapy. It is important to remember that one size does not fit all, and different people benefit from different stress-reduction activities.

If possible, organizations should encourage exercise during the workday. Managers should check in with staff, either in small groups or individually. Schedule more one-to-ones, and support employees when they’re juggling work, childcare, and other responsibilities, such as to care for a sick or grieving relative.

Where feasible, reinstate the teambuilding and employee engagement activities that were in place before the shut-down and add new ones if time and budget allow. Remember that your employees are people first, workers second.

If your company has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) benefits, encourage employees to use them. is a great resource for finding a therapist if mental health problems exist. Even pre-pandemic, the economic cost to employers of absenteeism due to mental health problems in the US was estimated at $23 billion annually. With this in mind, consider making sure employees are aware of resources, including hotlines, support groups, and the recent explosion of therapists offering remote teletherapy sessions.

How to Support Mental Health

Expect that your returning employees will be feeling anxious, and each person will react differently. Some people may be anxious about being in an elevator, others about being in close quarters with other people, and some may have concerns about using a communal kitchen or the restroom. I definitely expect this to be a difficult transition.

I am currently working with 30-35 patients per week remotely. Many who aren’t used to working from home are having difficulty with the isolation, but they’re also saying they’re concerned about returning to their offices. That’s why it’s so important to provide information and a sense of a safe and secure environment.

If your organization is one where some people worked on-site and others from home during the pandemic, expect some differences between those groups when they’re all together again. As people who have been away for months return, some will be happy to be back in the social atmosphere of the workplace, and some may be anxious or frightened. Some may have grown used to close contact with children or other relatives. They may have grown to love the lack of commuting and the chance to walk the dog several times a day. For these reasons, you may need to bring employees back in a step-wise fashion, rather than all at once.

Don’t suddenly set a date for a return, but begin to communicate the process, so people feel more informed and comfortable. Be as flexible as possible, and don’t expect that everything will just organically return to the way it was. Those days, at least for the foreseeable future, are over.

If you would like to learn more about this topic, we can host a webinar for your company. For more information, please contact Judith Lindenberger at 609-730-1049.

M. Penny Levin, Ph.D., is a clinical and performance psychologist, FAA certified flight instructor, and safety consultant who speaks nationwide on the psychological aspects of both aviation and medical safety.