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How to allay fears on going back to work

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Chartered psychologist and co-creator of The Smart Collaboration Accelerator, Portia Hickey, talks getting staff back to work…

Fear is functional – it’s a survival instinct that keeps us alert and vigilant. It’s an emotion that we’re all born with, and it helps to keep us safe. Like all emotions, the degree by which we feel it will vary in intensity from one person to another, and it can be momentary, or it can last a long time. Fear is something that a lot of us have felt more of during the pandemic. As time has gone on, many have accepted and battled the fear of the virus itself. But as lockdown measures ease and we return to our workplaces, the feeling of fear might return and this time, it has a more specific name.

Anxiety

UK describes Coronaphobia as ‘the fear of returning to normality once lockdown is relieved’. It’s nothing to be ashamed of because there is something to be fearful of in going back to work. To tell us not to be nervous is disingenuous and misses an opportunity to foster more safety behaviours in the general public that will stop the spread of COVID-19. All business leaders should expect a certain level of Coronaphobia amongst their staff about coming back to work.

To avoid the fear manifesting itself in ways that might harm the business, here are some tips for managing your team’s worries;

1. Reappraise the fear

The fear of COVID-19 is ‘complex’ in psychological terms, therefore reducing it requires reappraising (or perceiving less) fear. Helping people reappraise the anxiety either involves the removal of the virus (and consistent evidence that this is the case) or it requires us to give clear instructions on how to stay safe. These instructions (stay two metres apart, wear a mask in public) need to be unambiguous and explained in terms of evidence. When the instructions and reasons for them are not clear, it creates uncertainty and therefore, fear or anxiety.

2. Build trust

People also need to trust the messages regarding safety and therefore require a trustworthy authority figure to deliver them. There is also competence trust – the belief in a leader’s ability to do their job correctly, lead effectively and keep everyone safe.

There are a lot of things a leader can do to signal their trustworthiness; being transparent, vulnerable, and consistent establishes emotional trust. For messages to be trusted, they need to be unambiguous and transparent. Make clear what is known and what is unknown to back up evidence behind decision making.

An example of this could be. ‘Public Health England recommends trying to keep two metres away from people as a precaution. As a result, we have rearranged the desks in the office to accommodate social distancing and will be creating a rota for people to come into the office at different times.” It is also important to be clear about what you don’t know. “We don’t know yet the extent to which Covid-19 is spread on planes, so as a result we are banning all but essential work travel.”

Effective remote working requires a minimum level of competence trust in one’s colleagues – without it, performance deteriorates. We measure trust, among other things, when working with teams and organisations to accelerate collaboration, as getting a ‘read’ on the levels of trust in a team or parts of the organisation helps leaders understand what they need to do and prioritise in order to improve collaboration.

When many people are being asked to take pay cuts and work fewer hours, it is natural that this brings out territorial behaviour and the ‘hoarding’ of work and knowledge.

This can be highly detrimental to a company’s ability to identify client needs or growth opportunities, so actively building trust between employees and leadership as well as between colleagues is a real business imperative.

3. Social proof

Ultimately, as more people return to work safely without a resurgence of the virus, this will provide a form of social proof that will lessen people’s anxiety about going back to work. Social proof works both ways though – if a return to the workplace is shown to be unsafe, then getting people back to work will become far more difficult and trust could be irreparably damaged.

Organisations therefore need to genuinely do what they can to keep their people safe. Going beyond the minimum requirements, or following the advice of a trusted expert/group (it may not be the government guidelines that are deemed most trustworthy), could be an important step in establishing your trustworthiness and competence trust as an organisation. And if initial plans are going well, then let the rest of your team know.

4. Ask for feedback

Something that is often overlooked is to ask your team about how they are feeling. Anonymous surveys are preferable, as people will feel more compelled to share how they are really feeling. Some example questions can include:

  • Do you feel anxious about going back to the office?
  • Do you live with anyone who is considered vulnerable?
  • How do you travel to work?
  • Do you own a mask?
  • Do you feel comfortable travelling on public transport?
  • What are you most worried about in terms of going back into work?
  • What are you most looking forward to when you COVID-19-secure?
  • What could we do to make your return to the office better?

It is perfectly valid to feel nervous during this time. This is a brand-new situation for all of us, and we are all learning as we go. But the same rules still apply – be honest, build trust and encourage collaboration for your return to work and all should go as smoothly as reasonably possible.

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