6 risks the returning workforce could face heading back to the office

After two long years, Aussie employees are transitioning back to the workplace. According to LifeWorks, it’s clear that the workforce returning to the office is very different from those that left in March 2020. Stress levels are higher, and general mental health is lower.

What are the risks workers could face on their return?

As such, there’s been an increased focus on workplace mental health and wellbeing, which has led to decreased productivity levels and is driving the ‘great resignation’. So what risks do Australian businesses need to be aware of as employees head back to the office?

A rise in absenteeism

Aussie employees have borne the brunt of crippling lockdowns and COVID restrictions. With the nation reopening, businesses will see a rise in absenteeism generated by a mix of higher COVID infections, workers avoiding working when sick and cases of long COVID.

To keep absenteeism to a minimum and help employees, businesses need to offer flexibility. Workplaces should allow employees testing positive to COVID but have no symptoms to work from home, rather than take sick leave as they can’t come into the office. Another way of minimising absenteeism is to champion mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.

Rather than thinking about wellbeing as an add-on, it’s time to place it front and centre in everything your business does. This doesn’t require a drastic overhaul in day-to-day operations; rather, it can be as simple as introducing an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to maximise support provided to your employees as they transition back to the workplace.

Flexibility is a must

Three in five working Aussies say that flexible work is more important than progression.

Regardless of the size of your business, firms must prioritise flexibility or risk falling victim to a surge in resignations. 33% of this cohort say flexibility is an essential course of action an employer can take to support their mental health. Businesses must listen to their employees and offer suitable flexibility that aligns with the new workforce’s wants and needs.

Flexibility comes in many forms that suit different workplaces, roles and individuals.

Adoptions of flexible working can include flexible start and finish times, part-time work, job sharing, remote work and flexible rostering. Employees expect more from their employers and to retain staff in the era of ‘The Great Resignation’ the old ways of supporting your employees are about to be disrupted – businesses who don’t innovate risk being left behind.

More overwhelmed and stressed managers

Today’s managers have reported feeling more stressed than pre-pandemic. Research revealed that pre-COVID managers reported a better mental health score, as they felt more supported and appreciated in the workplace than general employees.

However, there’s been a rise in the negative impact on managers’ mental health. This has caused a rise in stress levels and concerns over the ability to handle the crisis. Managers are often the first to feel the squeeze of staff resignations and resourcing dilemmas.

There’s been an added layer of needing to deal with their team’s feelings of anxiety due to uncertain times. To support managers businesses need to ensure they offer the right support to ensure employees, across the board, can access the help they need and to feel valued.

Managers also report stress results from not having adequate training, which gives them the resources and knowledge to deal with these additional situations.

Adequately training managers to deal with mental health issues in the workplace benefits both employees and the greater management team. Another benefit of this training for managers is that it deepens their understanding of their own mental health and addresses the perception of the stigma that prevents many leaders from seeking the help they need.

Staff turnover will continue to rise

Research from PwC found that 38% of workers are planning to leave their job over the next 12 months. Over the past two years, employees have been dealing with multiple changes, working an extra 2.5 hours per day to keep up with different workloads and staffing levels.

The chronic strain shouldered by the workforce over the last two years is starting to take effect, with many finding themselves exhausted. The urge to take back control is high and the need to relieve the strain with a fresh start is driving the surge of resignations.

New research shows that, for more than half of the employees surveyed, the main driver of intention to resign is mental stress. In fact, one-quarter of employees are considering leaving due to their employer’s response to the pandemic. As mental stress levels rise, employers must support existing staff to decrease the risk of mass turnover.

Recognition and workplace relationships are increasingly important

Celebrating the wins and highlighting the successes of individuals and teams has never been so important. Establishing a culture where we recognise great work and shout out successes will help businesses foster a healthy, positive and successful workplace culture.

According to the Index, 31% of Aussies are more likely to stay in their current job because of their co-workers, emphasising the importance for businesses to recognise and foster workplace relationships. Not only is workplace culture a key differentiator in the war for talent, but a vibrant team atmosphere also increases staff retention and productivity.

A healthy and happy team environment can also lead to more open and honest communication, revealing more positive mental health and wellbeing amid employees.

Tackling mental health stigma

Mental health stigma remains a big issue within Australian workplaces. Today, employees still feel they will be judged or receive negative reactions and poorer career opportunities if they open up about their mental health concerns. Sadly, too many employees still keep quiet.

To break down the prevalent barriers of mental health stigma in the workplace, businesses must create an open environment that celebrates positive mental health. Companies can implement EAP systems that give employees the right advice and support.

In addition, things to improve stress and wellbeing in the workplace could include meditation and yoga classes or one paid mental health day off a quarter, where employees can do whatever they want to relax and recharge. Employers must also look for the triggers within their company that lead to employees requesting mental health days.

This is an opportunity to put in place systems to reduce employee stress and burnout. The pandemic has shone a spotlight on the mental health in the workplace. Now is the time for firms to take the steps required to support employees and mitigate the risks associated with “The Great Resignation” (and even “The Great Reshuffle”) before it’s too late.

Jamie MacLennan is the Senior Vice President and Managing Director Asia-Pacific at LifeWorks