Ensure a smooth transition back to the workplace

White curve
Managing the anxiety of returning to the office

Working from home has presented its own set of challenges to our mental health and productivity. See our Coronavirus: Quick tips for Line Managers for ongoing support in this area. We also think that organisations should think carefully about how they support their employees as they return to their normal places of work.

Why might people feel anxious about returning to their normal place of work?

woman looking pensive at laptop

woman looking pensive at laptop

  • Some people will need to feel physically safe (from catching coronavirus) before they can fully contribute at work1. They may have spent over a year shielding themselves or their loved ones, so spending time in the proximity of others at work may be daunting.

  • The levels of seniority and social norms2 in workplaces may make it hard for some to speak out when they are concerned or anxious – will more junior staff feel comfortable about speaking out?

  • There will be some people who can’t wait to get back into the social environment of their workplace, and who will throw themselves fully into the “old ways of working”. This enthusiasm needs to be considered in contrast to those who are anxious.  However, unintentionally, you may have 2 groups of people who find themselves ‘in conflict’3,4

  • Some people may have never actually met their colleagues, particularly if they have joined during lockdown. Remember how hard the first days in a new job can feel!

What can you as an employer do to help reduce anxiety? A physical and psychological return-to-work plan


  • Ensure a covid-secure workplace (and let your employees know it is safe)1
  • Gradually expose5 people to the working environment – perhaps operating a ‘hybrid model’ of workplace and home working


  • Acknowledge and understand the legitimate anxiety that some will be experiencing
  • Involve6 your staff in creating their safe place to work – make it their environment again
  • Increase the number of 1:1 meetings you have in the first few days and weeks of returning to the usual place of work. Create an environment of psychological safety so employees feel able to talk about any difficulties they may be having, and be open to any suggestions they might make. Be alert to any changes in usual behaviour which may indicate that someone is struggling.
  • Hold regular team meetings to discuss how you can collectively work together effectively7. Make sure they are held in a covid-secure way – don’t increase anxiety by asking people to be in closed environments where they may feel at risk or anxious
  • Make sure you have the correct information about where to refer staff who are struggling. Does your firm have an EAP (Employee Assistance Programme)? What support are you offering at this time?

What will getting this right mean for your organisation and your people?

  • Improved employee engagement through:
    • reduced anxiety,
    • feelings of “normality” and control
    • increased trust in managers and colleagues
    • improved job satisfaction
  • A return to optimum productivity sooner
  • An enhanced reputation amongst existing and potential employees
  • Provides a model for future organisational change
man and two women talking in office

man and two women talking in office

Watch: New ways of working and mental health

Supporting evidence

1 – Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological review, 50(4), 370.

2 - Berkowitz, A. D. (2005). An overview of the social norms approach. Changing the culture of college drinking: A socially situated health communication campaign, 1, 193-214.

3 - Tajfel, H., Billig, M. G., Bundy, R. P., & Flament, C. (1971). Social categorization and intergroup behaviour. European journal of social psychology, 1(2), 149-178.

4 - Stewart, T. L., Laduke, J. R., Bracht, C., Sweet, B. A., & Gamarel, K. E. (2003). Do the “eyes” have it? A program evaluation of Jane Elliott's “Blue‐Eyes/Brown‐Eyes” diversity training exercise 1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 33(9), 1898-1921.

5 – NHS Self Help – Phobias

6 - Miller, D. (2001). Successful change leaders: what makes them? What do they do that is different?. Journal of Change Management, 2(4), 359-368.

7 - Kauffeld, S., & Lehmann-Willenbrock, N. (2012). Meetings matter: Effects of team meetings on team and organizational success. Small group research, 43(2), 130-158.


Advice for employers

Information on supporting mental health in the workplace

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