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Supporting workers as they transition back to work

  • Written by Dr Sarah Cotton & Justine Alter




The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a number of businesses transforming their staff into a remote workforce. As restrictions have eased, employers now need to consider how they can best support these workers as they transition back into the usual work environment.

A slow and considered approach to this transition will allow businesses to identify and successfully manage risk factors that may apply to individual workers and/or the business as a whole. Organisational psychologist Dr Sarah Cotton, recommends that employers harness this opportunity to intentionally manage the ongoing transitions “There wasn’t much time for people as they transitioned into the early days of COVID-19 but there is this amazing opportunity now for workplaces to support their people through the ongoing transitions of what has been aptly termed ‘sustained disruption’.” 

Offering workers appropriate practical and psychological support as they return to the office after an extended period of working remotely can help negate feelings of stress and anxiety that this group may experience. Employers must remain aware that workers may have continued concerns around the risks of COVID-19 in the workplace, and/or feelings of anxiety around their role, their responsibilities, and what these may look like when they return.

Anecdotal evidence tells us that there has been a significant increase in mental health assistance requests within the first half of 2020, with Beyond Blue reporting a 30% increase in calls. Given these statistics, workplaces must be proactive in supporting their workers during this time, taking into consideration their mental health and wellbeing, along with more practical considerations such as physical safety.

Many businesses have had to make changes to the way in which they operate given the recent concerns around COVID-19, and these changes must be clearly and effectively communicated to staff. Leaders who may be navigating the same issues as their workers will also need to monitor their own mental and physical health, allowing them to function to maximum capacity. Tailored and specialist support can help businesses support their leaders as they assist their teams to navigate the challenges at this time. Equipping leaders with the skills and knowledge required will be critical, including how to lead remotely, how to sustain engagement and how to have the confidence to have conversations around new ways of working.

In reshaping culture, there is also a profound opportunity to reflect upon our learnings and find ways to harness the better practices that may have emerged. Revisiting organisational values can also be a valuable activity, helping to identify what has become more (or less) important in light of COVID-19. Businesses would do well to ensure that culture and strategy both adapt to the changing external market and environments.

Dr Cotton recommends that businesses invest in prevention led programs which address staff concerns at this time, citing the immediate and long-term financial, cultural and emotional benefits. “We know that transition can bring many challenges but we also know that transition can also bring incredible opportunities if supported well.”

By Dr Sarah Cotton & Justine Alter - psychologists, work-life transition experts & co-founders of Transitioning Well

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