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Here’s How to Manage Fear About Going Back to Work

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While many might assume that, as lockdown measures ease and we return to our workplaces, so too will our fears about the coronavirus itself. But, it’s likely that instead, we will see an increase in anxiety levels in the population. This has led some to coin the phrase ‘coronaphobia‘. Rather than a phobia or fear of the virus itself, Anxiety UK describes coronaphobia as ‘the fear of returning to normality once lockdown is relieved’. 

Feeling anxious about the virus or the ‘new normal’ is completely normal and nothing to be ashamed of. For many there is something to be fearful of in going back to work and, fear is functional. At its roots, it’s a survival instinct that keeps us alert, vigilant and safe.  Being fearful gives us all an opportunity to foster more safety behaviours that will stop the spread of COVID-19. The second reason we are all likely to feel a certain level of fear or anxiety is because we are all experiencing an unprecedented level of uncertainty. 

In the context of work, business leaders should expect a certain level of coronaphobia amongst their team. It may not manifest itself obviously as fear, it may look like anger or withdrawal in many people. To avoid the fear manifesting itself in ways that might harm the business, here are some tips for managing your team’s worries.

Ask how people are feeling

The first thing I’d advise all business leaders to do is ask your team about how they are feeling, preferably one-on-one, or for insights over a larger population, via an anonymous survey. Some example questions can include:

  • Do you want to go back to work in the office? 
  • What are you most worried about in terms of going back into the office?
  • What is most important to you about returning to the office?

By showing the team that you care, by asking them how they are, helps to build trust. Sometimes asking these personal questions anonymously via a survey will elicit more honest answers. Once you can see what your team is worried about and where their priorities lie, you can make plans accordingly about going back to the office.


Reappraise the anxiety

Reducing coronaphobia ultimately requires reappraising (or perceiving less) fear. This can be done either by removing the virus (with consistent evidence that this is the case) or giving clear instructions on how to stay safe. As business leaders won’t be able to control the former, they need to focus on the latter. Instructions like staying two metres apart and wearing a mask need to be unambiguous, explained in terms of evidence and enforced strictly. When the instructions are not clear, or safety precautions aren’t followed, it creates uncertainty and therefore, fear or anxiety.

Provide proof of successful strategies

A high level of reassurance can only come from social proof that a return to work hasn’t caused a resurgence of the virus. And, it can go the other way too – if a return to the workplace is shown to be unsafe, then getting people back to work will become far more complicated and trust could be irreparably damaged. Organisations, therefore, need to do everything they can to keep people safe and communicate what’s working back to the rest of the team.

If you’re recording everyone’s temperatures every day, you might want to send around a weekly bulletin confirming that no one has had a temperature throughout the week or, if they have, were sent home right away.

Build trust

For messages to be trusted, they need to be unambiguous and transparent. But they also need to come from someone who is trusted and respected. There are a lot of things a leader can do to signal their trustworthiness; being transparent, vulnerable, and consistent establishes emotional trust. Make clear what is known and what is unknown to show evidence for your thinking. Some examples include:

  • ‘Scientific evidence on the effectiveness of face masks in slowing transmission of coronavirus was limited at the beginning of the pandemic. However, recent studies from Cambridge and Greenwich Universities suggest that wearing a mask can “dramatically reduce transmission rates if enough people wear them in public”. As a result, we are asking all staff members to wear masks when moving around the building. You can, however, take them off when sitting alone at your desk.’
  • ‘Public Health England recommends trying to keep two metres away from people as a precaution, so we are creating a rota for people to come into the office at different times, and rearranging the office to accommodate social distancing.’
  • ‘The evidence for the rate at which COVID-19 is spread on planes is lacking, so as a result, we are banning all but essential work travel.’

There is also a business case for increasing your employee’s trust in you. Research shows that trust is critical to teams collaborating effectively, which is why we measure it at the Smart Collaboration Accelerator. Getting a ‘read’ on the levels of trust in a group or parts of the organisation helps leaders understand what they need to do and prioritise to improve collaboration (especially from a distance). 

The same rules for building a strong working team still apply when managing fear during a pandemic – be honest, be trustworthy and encourage collaboration. With the right frameworks in place, the return to work should go as smoothly as can be expected.


Image credit: Freepik

Portia Hickey is a chartered psychologist and co-creator of The Smart Collaboration Accelerator, powered by Thrive Matters.

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