The Emotional Impact Of Return-To-Office

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As companies move into the “next normal”—be it returning to the office, going fully remote or some kind of hybrid approach—they need to be prepared for the impact on employee well-being.

Paying attention to the emotional impact of shifting office requirements is critical to employee well-being, says George Vergolias, PsyD, certified threat manager and the medical director for R3 Continuum, a Minneapolis-based behavioral health and workplace violence solutions provider.

Vergolias spoke with StrategicCHRO360 about how to offer help to those who need it, the ripple effects of violence and bullying on an organization, and the difference between safety and security in the workplace.

As workplaces move into the “next normal,” it’s important for leaders to recognize that this in and of itself is a kind of disruption. How can an employer ensure that emotional well-being is part of its change management approach?

Returning to the office or making a shift to permanent hybrid or remote work situations will indeed be another type of disruptive change. Emotional and psychological stress associated with that change will be a major issue needing to be addressed. Promoting a culture of well-being leading into, during and after that return will be critical if workplaces are to successfully adapt. Employers and organizational leaders should consider several factors to maximize a positive response to that change initiative.

First, in the case of returning to a physical office space, develop a clear plan for return to work and re-engagement of the workforce at scale, so leaders and employees know what to expect. Unexpected issues will arise, and having a strategic plan allows the organization to stay the course and show consistent leadership at times of uncertainty. 

Second, communicate that plan clearly and consistently. Anxiety and fear love a vacuum. If leaders do not provide practical information and a clear sense of what to expect, human nature defaults to filling in that knowledge gap with speculation, which typically trends toward negative and fearful thinking, leading to increased stress, anxiety and team disruption. 

Third, develop a range of support resources that meet your organizational needs. Some examples include psychoeducational support materials or trainings showing how to manage stress or promote mindfulness; adaptive workplace policies that are responsive to the needs of workers, such as hybrid work schedules, time allotment for parents who need to homeschool; disruptive event management services, or DEM for short, to provide emotional support to emerging stresses over time; and access to mental health services for those who may require formal clinical treatment. 

What’s the difference between workplace disruption response psychological support versus everyday mental health support? What are some examples of how that looks?

Both DEM psychological support and mental health treatment services are clinically informed, and both are delivered by licensed clinicians. The differences emerge in intended scope and expected outcome. 

DEM is a brief, time-limited intervention offering psychoeducational support to help someone emotionally adapt to a disruptive and/or traumatic event in a way that mobilizes their own resilience and coping mechanisms. Ideally, a DEM response is initiated within 24 to 48 hours of a disruptive event and typically lasts a few days up to a week, and rarely longer than two weeks.

The focus is less about teaching people new coping strategies, but rather focused on supporting them by helping them understand the context of their reaction to a disruptive event, helping them feel supported and assisting them to maximize their own coping skills. In DEM, the goal is to enhance coping skill development, but not to diagnose or treat a specific ongoing psychological condition. 

Mental health treatment is a sustained moderate-to-long term treatment engagement, typically meeting once a week or every other week. Treatment can last several months up to a year or longer depending on severity of the condition. It may or may not include both psychotherapy, also known as “talk therapy,” and medication management.

Mental health treatment focuses on diagnosing a mental health condition and treating symptoms through development of new coping skills and psychological insight over time, including recognition of behavioral and cognitive thinking patterns. DEM and mental health treatment complement one another and both can assist people who have been impacted by a disruptive event. 

Workplace bullying and violence issues are becoming increasingly common and we expect this trend to continue. What are some of the tangible and intangible effects of workplace violence?

The tangible, or more obvious, effects of workplace violence may include an increase in emotional reactions and symptoms such as traumatic response, stress, anxiety, depression, emotional isolation, social withdrawal, anger, irritability, substance abuse as a means to cope and in some situations, an increase in suicidal thinking. 

When we fail to maintain a safe workplace, the intangible, or less obvious, but just as impactful effects of workplace violence may include a ripple effect that erodes trust across the organization. This host of workplace issues may include a negative impact on team cohesion, trust in being vulnerable or taking chances, innovation, productivity, retention of talent, attraction of new talent, and conflict resolution, just to name a few. 

The irony is that most workplace leaders focus exclusively on the tangible effects of workplace violence, but these are often able to be remedied by interventions like DEM or mental health treatment in the short or moderate term. Yet, the intangible and less obvious effects are much more cancerous to an organization over time, eroding its culture from within and much harder to rectify.

What are some high-level guidelines for developing and promoting a workplace culture that prioritizes integrity and safety?

To promote a workplace culture of safety and security, the first step is to realize that safety and security are not the same. Someone can feel secure, but not safe. Armed guards and metal detectors might make us feel a bit more secure, but not necessarily safe if we’re being bullied by the person in the next cubicle, or if management fails to address a disruptive employee who is making threats. It’s important to address both concerns. 

Second, organizations need clear workplace violence policies that address issues such as bullying, harassment, threats, domestic violence and other issues in a way that makes clear expectations and consequences. Many organizations don’t have the internal expertise to develop these, so it is important to seek out such when needed. 

Third, implementation of these policies needs to be rolled out with a clear communication plan, and then followed by leaders and management with clear and consistent decision-making. Nothing erodes trust in a well-developed workplace violence policy more than a lack of follow-through or failure to hold violators accountable.

Fourth, a culture of integrity, respect and dignity must be modeled from top to bottom in the organization—consistently, day in and day out—so that all employees have a clear image of how to treat one another, and what is not acceptable.

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