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Resumption Anxiety Roundtable

Watch our latest roundtable episode featuring two of our expert health coaches on the topic of resumption anxiety. In this video, we share tips on how employers can best prepare their people for the challenge of hybrid working and how to conquer the fear and anxiety in the workplace over society returning to a pre-pandemic normal.

Kirstie Green

9th August, 2021 - 11 min read

In the second of our Kiteline Health roundtable series, we dive into the issue of ‘resumption anxiety’ in the wake of COVID restrictions lifting across the country last month. Kiteline Health’s Kirstie Green and Emma Crutchley are joined by health coaches Laura Steventon and Ruth Saunders.

Ruth is a health coach with a background in human resources and facilities management. This is combined with her experience over many years of knowing how the physical workplace contributes to organisational effectiveness and also employee wellbeing.

Laura is clinical psychotherapist and health coach, who specialises in helping people overcome chronic stress, intangible grief, and feelings of low self-worth to get back to reshaping their lives for a brighter future. In this video, the group gets to the heart of this issue of resumption anxiety: what is it, how it can be managed, and what people in the workplace can do to ease the fear of returning to normal.

What exactly is resumption anxiety?

We have coined the term to refer to the feeling of anxiety, fear, worry and dread associated with society and life returning to a pre-pandemic ‘normal’. For example, people socialising face-to-face once again, pubs, clubs and restaurants reopening, retail and entertainment venues opening their doors once more, being able to hug a loved one… and returning back to the office.

After over 18 months of juggling the challenges of remote working, turning to a screen for emotional connection from family and friends, and not being able to go out and about, it has been an emotionally, mentally and physically taxing time for all.

But, last month, this restrictive way of living was lifted in the UK. While a lot of people have been thrilled and relieved, others have not felt the same. For some, the old ways of working and living no longer make sense in a post-pandemic environment.

The mixture of uncertainty, worry, and lingering fear of contracting the virus all contributes to the anxiety associated with the sudden return to pre-COVID life.

Heading back to the office

Both health coaches echo Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng’s comments made on BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning, encouraging officials to return to the office but with a "degree of flexibility", citing that flexible working is here to stay.

Ruth thinks that employers are right in wanting their people to come back into the workplace, and it’s all about balance and a gradual return, centred on trust. She is confident that “employers will create the right physical environment so that it's very clear to people how they use their space; things like one way systems and keeping your distance, and use of lifts and lobbies. I think that will go a long way for the right environment being set for individuals to then start to think about how they connect with other people, and that's not just about distance”. What it boils down to, Ruth emphasises, is “respect”.

“If you're in an organisation that promotes and fosters respect for one another [...] you're going to reassure all those people who may not be feeling as fantastic about coming back”, which is crucial to setting “the right environment physically, to promote the right behaviours and values that people can then at least get an indication of what's acceptable from day one”.

When asked what employers can do to better prepare their employees and themselves for greater numbers returning to the office, coach Laura Steventon agrees that a gentler approach with respect and understanding is key to a smooth return to work transition. Laura adds, “I think this has given us the opportunity to see how people can have more autonomy and can be trusted”.

Ruth envisages that the solution is for employers to create a sense of "energy and excitement” about returning to the office, turning into a positive experience centred around choice and freedom, the benefits of which will be reflected in employee engagement and motivation.

“If we can create an environment that offers people that blended choice, you're able to put the individual at the heart of that conversation”, she concludes.

This is in line with the CIPD’s ‘Flex from 1st’ campaign, calling on organisations and the government to make the right to request flexible working a day-one right, with greater transparency and clarity of expectations from both the employer and employee regarding flexible working (also known as ‘hybrid’ or ‘blended’ working).

Freedom and intangible loss

When thinking about our societal return to normal, Laura warns that people aren't always able to articulate the intangible loss of newfound freedoms.

“I think it's much more extensive than actually we've recognised, ever, in the loss that people will feel and I think that the loss of freedom that people have for the first time in their lives may have experienced, will be massive”, Laura explained. “ I think the important thing that employers need to do is to reset the communication and to make people feel at ease”. Recently, the Financial Times reported on a wave of global resignations as a result of the pandemic. In research by Personio and Opinium, just under 40% of UK and Irish workers plan on resigning at some point this year.

Laura picks this point up, musing that people “want a better life”: “they want more freedom. They want autonomy, and autonomy is one of the things that motivates people”. The solution? Understanding and educating themselves on their people's psychology and behaviour will take workplaces much further, in Laura’s opinion.

Kirstie agrees, adding that amid all the misery and confusion of lockdown restrictions, there have also been “little pockets of bliss” for some people. These people may have experienced unexpected freedoms and opportunities as a result of the pandemic (for example parents being able to spend more time with their children at home, and new mothers getting extra time at home beyond their maternity leave). The sudden loss of these opportunities can feel daunting. “Anxiety can stem from both freedom and a loss of freedom at the same time,” Kirstie summarises. Emma adds that having this opportunity and “using it to make things change for the better for everybody” is at the heart of the solution to the problem of resumption anxiety.

Healing old wounds

Laura thinks part of the answer to better employee engagement and motivation is to fix issues that existed before COVID happened. To her, it’s all about employers distinguishing themselves and understanding the difference between management and leadership.

She says, “ you still have the things that were stressing people out in first place: burnout and depression that was increasing before COVID happened [...] we still have people that are walking around unhealed with their own issues and their own traumas that they bring to the workplace”, adding that there's a real opportunity for workplaces to use their budgets to further employee wellness, to teach psychological behaviour patterns, to understand more about self-management, and that it's all about creating a “shared vision” for health and wellbeing in the workplace.

Kirstie echoes that the discussion around people’s health and wellbeing has worked itself “firmly into the ecosystem of the workplace” as a result of the pandemic, something that companies may not have necessarily been equipped to deal with before.

“Historically, discussing health at work has been quite uncomfortable for some people, and it's always been quite a difficult subject to raise with your colleagues or your line manager. It's quite interesting how, as a result of everything that's happened, health is being centered almost hand-in-hand with the workplace”, she comments.

Respect and boundaries

To Emma, the crux of the matter is that people feel heard, understood, and respected. “It’s all about dealing with people and understanding that your colleagues may have very, very different opinions to you”, she says. It is vital for colleagues and line managers to appreciate that other people do have these different opinions as their own, particularly around subjects pertaining to the pandemic, and treating everyone with patience and respect is a key for a happy return to work.

Ruth agrees, explaining that it’s essential that people have the right relationships at work that are centred on trust, with people feeling safe, valued, and their views respected.

“I think the damage to trust and the erosion of trust is probably the thing that's going to be hardest and longest to actually recover from”, Ruth adds. “When uncertainty is there, trust is lost.”

Trust and boundary-setting at work - whether it’s about physical social distancing or wearing a mask into work - is part of a much bigger conversation around trust, and employers restoring and improving levels of trust. “I think it goes back to tolerance and compassion for people; you don't know what's going on in anybody's life”, Laura says. Workplaces should be mindful that there may be underlying reasons (such as phobias, illness and abuse) that may mean people are reluctant to wear a mask to the office or receive their vaccination. Laura explains that it is essential for business leaders to better train and support their people to shed unconscious bias that may surround these contentious issues. Unconscious bias, after all, can cause additional layers of fear, mistrust and confusion and will contribute to an unhappy working environment.

How can health coaching ease resumption anxiety?

When asked how long resumption anxiety may affect the UK workplace and society in general, all agreed that the impact will be far-reaching and will go on much longer than we may realise. Laura, however, adds that as humans we adapt to our environment quickly, so there is hope.

Ruth thinks that health coaching is a great solution for businesses and individuals to help address their fears and anxiety. We all know the link between physical and emotional wellbeing. Physical symptoms can manifest as a result of how an individual is feeling, and this is part of a larger conversation around taking control of your lifestyle to feel better. To Ruth, health coaching can offer a safe space for people to help “unlock” some of this thinking and take control back in life and at work.

For Laura, the answer centers on creating education. “The more we can educate people around self-management, the more society in general will move forward.”

There's a real opportunity to educate everybody on self-management and how you take care of yourself. When we are trying to deal with illness or what’s going on inside our heads, Laura warns that you “can't actually be present at work, so you've got presenteeism going on rather than actual productivity”. Educating people on how to manage their own health and wellbeing is what is key.

Health coaching allows businesses to bridge that gap between existing EAP models, traditional talking therapies, and helping individuals to discover the root cause of what's going on, empowering them to be happier and healthier at work and at home.

Rest and Recovery

After working for the past 18 months with little reprieve or opportunities to go on holiday, staff are at risk of burnout.

Both coaches emphasise that employers need to be mindful that their people can’t be allowed to get to the point that once they stop and finally take a break, their adrenaline and nervous energy fades and they burn out.

For Laura, it goes beyond the traditional two-week summer holiday a year and a few days at Christmas. “It's about teaching people what rest and recovery means in their day-to-day lives and how to take those small rest breaks as well as recovery”.

As a result, companies have a chance to educate themselves on things that they all can do at all levels of the business on a day-to-day and weekly basis that will encourage a culture of rest. This culture will help them to rest, recover, reset, and recuperate so that the workforce don't suffer burn out or mental exhaustion.

Laura stresses that, “we cannot make good decisions under chronic stress. We make bad decisions because we are emotional. Our logical brain goes offline. We're only operating from emotion, which means that we're not making the best choices for businesses and we're not going to make them profitable”.

Health coaching and Kiteline Health’s solution allows UK businesses to support their employees and line managers with wellbeing courses, training, modules and content alongside health coaching, to help them become advocates for their own health.

“I hope that we use this as an opportunity to create a more integrated, tolerant society. I couldn't think of anything better to come out of a pandemic”, Laura concludes.

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Kirstie Green, Digital Content Manager

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