Health and WellbeingHow leaders can plan for a mindful return to work

How leaders can plan for a mindful return to work

HRD Thought Leader Janine Nicole Dennis outlines how the return to work can be managed to prioritise staff health and wellbeing.

After a long period of isolation for many workers, employers finally have the green light to bring workers back in-house. While it is completely understandable for employers to desire a quick return to “normal” operations, it is worth noting that virtually nothing about the work experiences for much of the workforce was normal.

2020 wasn’t challenging simply because we had a global health crisis on our hands. It was difficult to process, because in lieu of the pandemic we were all faced with the ways in which we neglected simple things like wellness and more complex concerns like civil rights.

Working from home: perceptions vs reality

If you observe the way some of the business world is defining our collective time in isolation, you might think we were all on a luxury vacation working from home complete with butler-service, a maid, and daily excursions with masterfully prepared libations. There were plenty of libations going around in 2020, but they were not of the resort-like, social sort you may be imagining.

In fact, according to a December 2020 study called: “Alcohol Consumption during the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Cross-Sectional Survey of US Adults” in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, participants cited drinking approximately twenty-seven drinks within a 30-day period. The top three reasons for increased alcohol consumption were described as “increased stress”, “increased alcohol availability”, and “boredom”.

Along for the ride with increased alcohol consumption, (which undoubtedly deteriorated active participants in the workforce) is the matter of mental health. For some the immediate and abrupt cessation of life as we knew it exacerbated with the isolation from our families and community was quite enough to create a sentiment of loneliness peppered with depressive and anxiety episodes.

Conversely, a greater majority of people experienced a slower dance towards depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders that have only just showed up in 2021. It is to suggest that the combination of chaos, uncertainty, and rapid change has just landed with much of society and as such, it is only now that many are expressing that they have hit a wall with their mental health and overall wellbeing.

In an article on the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) website, mental health practitioner, Elizabeth DuPont Spencer LCSW-C states “Transitions bring an opportunity for anxiety because by definition they involve moving to something new. The anxiety triggers of transitions can be especially difficult post-pandemic.” Anxiety is triggered often times in the anticipation and ruminating about events we have a fear for.

The risks of the return to work

In so many ways, a mass call for a return to work without a period of reflection for what we have come through is a trigger in and of itself. Returning to work post-pandemic is a wholly new experience and one that is tied to the notion that there is an unpredictable pandemic looming in the backdrop that could set us back to a 2020 reality.

These data points are important to consider understanding that these are newer nuisance variables to the puzzle of work. The fact is we have a workforce of people who are mostly disappointed and disenfranchised with the experience of working. This is the reason why employee experience, culture and engagement and wellness have been hot topics in the last decade.

What would make an employee want to return to your employ if the job was insufferable and depleting prior to 2020 and you continued to expect similar thresholds for work and productivity during one of the most traumatic events in our modern-day history? It isn’t a reasonable narrative to assume let alone demand that anyone would be in a rush to come back to work even with your declarations of exceeding safety protocols layered atop old paradigms for working.

Any good clinician or mental health practitioner will tell you that is not how trauma works and if it isn’t abundantly clear yet, we all just experienced exponential trauma.

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If people aren’t balanced and healthy mind, body, and spirit, how productive do you think they will be? How much do you imagine any of your employees will care about your bottom-line, if ensuring their wholeness isn’t your top priority?

This is a time for radical compassion and methodical workforce planning. More than a focus on empathy and being intentional, this is a time for leaders to use their common sense as it pertains to the way you will invite your employees to return to work.

Here are some tips for healthy and mindful ways to usher your employees back to the office:

See the return to work as a fresh start

Every organisation should see this moment as a way to onboard and welcome their employees back like never before. This is a brand new first impression and, in many ways, these are not the employees you have known; they are wholly new people who have been transformed by what we all experienced.

Create opportunities for everyone to get to know one another again in a meaningful way. Offering a phased approach and/or support for how people come back if there are concerns will go a long way in helping people feel positively about returning. As leaders you have the ability to celebrate life again with your most important assets; while also recognising what has been lost if that applies to your teams. In other words, the call for employees to return to work should not be all business. Have a heart.

Time to do a culture check

Assessing your culture as experienced by returning employees is important. It is especially important if everyone has been online for a year. What worked well for teams? What didn’t work as well? Having a collaborative mindset about reengineering the employee experience so your organisation can live up to the standards that made people join your company to begin with.

This also allows you to get ahead of any issues lurking beneath the surface before they become bigger, more visible problems for your brand. Having your employees in-person again should be a potent time for active listening and genuine action.

Prioritise health and wellbeing through mindfulness practices

If health and wellbeing aren’t central to your operational strategy as a company let alone your messaging as leaders, you are bound to lose favour with your workforce. After a period of sickness and trauma there is usually an urgency to focus on health and wellness. We are rapidly shifting as a society and business ecosystem into that awareness. Every workday should begin and end with mindful moments.

Whether that means, having practitioners come in to teach your teams how to meditate or do breathwork so your team leads, and leaders can eventually begin meetings with breathwork exercises to centre everyone before they go off to do the good work, or you simply start and end the day with a centring thought to carry teams throughout the day; wellness must become an anchoring component to your internal relations. It is important to not only offer access to resources that promote wellness, but for it to be embedded into the lifestyle of the company.

It is fair for companies to want to get back to some semblance of normal operation but let us not turn a blind eye to the ways we can create new value propositions for our organisations by simply having empathy and relaxing your need to lead based on an expired template for leadership.

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