How can insurers and brokers help ease employees back into the office post-COVID? James McErlean, GM, Europe, Headspace for Work, offers some useful insights here.
With lockdown restrictions further easing in July, workers in the insurance industry will be feeling increasingly anxious about the return to the office and adjusting to a changed environment.
These concerns are understandable and very real. Being back in the office means close proximity with others outside their household, as well as coming to terms with complex social distancing rules and PPE measures. There’s also an exhausting, crowded commute to deal with.
Employees may also be worried about how the change in routine from remote working to a changed office environment may affect focus, productivity and performance. A recent survey by Cartridge People found that half of Brits think they are more productive when working from home, and only 18% prefer the traditional office environment.
As insurers start to think about the return to work, they need to consider the psychological impact on their workforce and take steps to help employees adapt and maintain their duty of care.
Each and every person has been affected by the pandemic, and these uncertain times have been overwhelming for many. Employees face diverse and wide-ranging challenges as they return to work, so the most vital thing insurers can do is show compassion.
This is about leaders taking time to understand what employees are going through, the stressors and anxieties they’re facing as they prepare for the return to the office, and how these fears can be allayed and mitigated.
Insurers should also remember that every employee’s stressors will be different and adapt their responses accordingly. If they fear getting the virus and having to take time off, companies should reassure them that they do not need to feel guilty for being unwell. If they are worried about being back in the office too soon, they should let them know that they are listening to their concerns and will not force them to put themselves at risk if they’re not comfortable just yet.
No matter their circumstances, people should know their anxieties are recognised, appreciated, and understood.
Even if businesses don’t have a clear answer to all their questions, just listening and showing kindness and compassion can sometimes be enough. However, leaders should also be aware of support tools available through HR teams and should be ready to point staff in the direction of techniques proven to help in managing stress and anxiety.
Communication is key
Companies must also keep communicating and checking in with workers on a regular basis as they return to the office.
Over the last few months, communication has been done primarily through video calls and instant messaging with everyone working remotely. Once back in the office, managers should try to prioritise one-to-one, face-to-face meetings in line with social distancing rules. This personable approach helps reassure employees and enables leaders to become more attentive to signs of stress and anxiety, such as low energy and quietness.
By establishing open lines of communication, some employees may even have ideas on ways to improve the post-COVID working environment, so insurance leaders should be sure to listen and take those on board where possible.
Regular check-ins, taking an interest in employee wellbeing and leading with compassion are all techniques that can help embed a respect for psychological health at the heart of working culture. This is key for business continuity both before and after the pandemic – because employee health is crucial to business health.
Managing feelings of isolation
Every insurer will have to take steps to separate and distance staff, such as changing policies around desk use, meeting rooms and access to communal areas.
Understandably, many employees may be concerned about feeling isolated and disconnected from the world around them, or not being able to socialise with their colleagues like they used to. A lack of workplace culture and social contact affects morale and anxiety further, as socialising in the office can improve teamwork and make it a happier and healthier environment.
Reconnecting with the mind through meditation enables us to be more present with our feelings, helping us make the crucial distinction that being alone and feeling alone are two very different things.
Being physically and mentally present, without distraction, can help us sit with our feelings or simply acknowledge them as they pass by, helping us stay connected with the people around us. This will make for better communication and an overall healthier relationship with colleagues – overcoming the emotional challenges of social distancing.
Maintaining productivity and focus
With recent research showing many workers are concerned the return to the office may affect their focus and productivity, employers can take proactive steps to alleviate these fears. One way to do this is by giving employees access to techniques that can help their wellbeing and provide them with tools to improve their focus.
One such tool is mindfulness, which can help workers improve their focus and concentration as they return to the office. Research has shown that meditation can help people focus, switch between tasks less frequently and enjoy their work more. A scientific study has found that using mindfulness for 30 days reduced stress by a third (32%), while improving focus by 14%. (Source) (Source).
In as little as ten minutes a day, we can use our breath as an anchor, allowing ourselves to feel connected to the present moment versus worrying about an uncertain future or the fact that we’re not being able to complete the task we’re working on right now. As insurance employees return to work, this can help ease feelings of uncertainty and improve concentration.
A long-term strategy
Adapting to the changing workplace and figuring out a ‘new normal’ is likely to be a lengthy process, so mindfulness should form part of long-term initiatives to improve employee mental health in the workplace and beyond. It shouldn’t just be seen as a short-term remedy.
By practising these techniques over the months ahead, insurance professionals can become more aware of their stress levels without being overwhelmed by them, manage negative emotions, and strengthen their sense of perspective to navigate the many changes we will continue to face throughout the recovery stage of the pandemic.