Issue Briefs

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Following is an article in a recent MSPB publication recommending strategies for agencies to use when recalling employees to regular worksites from telework.


In the September 2021 Issues of Merit, we encouraged agencies to use lessons they learned from the pandemic to inform future telework policies. Today, many Federal agencies are scaling back from maximum telework after almost 2 years of remote work, and many employees are feeling anxious about the transition. Pulling from a review of recent research, we have identified a few ideas that could help ease that anxiety.

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Apply to the office what you learned about yourself from teleworking. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review points out that being anxious about returning to work—like reacclimating to any previous routine—can be uncomfortable. The author suggests allowing yourself to feel as anxious as you normally would starting a new job, and know that everyone else is anxious as well. Like reentering the water after having basked on the beach, you will get used to it again. Back at the office, you will find many different attitudes about the need for precautions, desire for socialization, and ways of coping. The article advocates for “tolerance, acceptance, and refraining from gossip” to help ease the way. Furthermore, reflect on what you learned about your preferences from working at home and try to incorporate these into your new (but old) work location. For example, if employees enjoyed better quality lunches and later office hours at home, try to configure your new routine accordingly.

Find opportunities for relief from workplace anxiety. Employees and employers should pay attention to the need for mental health support in the workplace. In a recent interview with the nonprofit news organization Marketplace, mental health expert Amanda Fialk pointed out that few organizations have created a culture where people feel that they “can talk about their mental health concerns and take time to take care of themselves.” She recommends creating opportunities to practice self-care in the workplace (e.g., sponsoring support groups, promotion of employee assistance programs (EAP), or just acknowledging your own and others’ anxiety). She recommends availing yourself to earned time off if you are experiencing extreme stress. Organizations may consider having a quiet space to meditate or practice mindfulness and may remind employees about recreational options at work. Activities like going to the gym, yoga classes, or runs/ walks at breaks or after work may be helpful. Additional steps that may help are good sleep habits, taking time for fun with friends, and avoiding excessive social media where anxiety is sometimes replicated and reinforced.

Allow autonomy, communicate openly, and be kind. In an article on supporting employee mental health in the transition back to work, the American Psychological Association (APA) recommends that employers ease uncertainty by giving each employee control and decision-making power over where, how, and when they work. In MSPB’s 2012 study Federal Employee Engagement: The Motivating Potential of Job Characteristics and Rewards, we showed how granting employees’ autonomy (e.g., flexibility in working remotely or setting working hours) may improve engagement—the sense of personal connectedness to the work we do. The APA article recommends the same autonomy as a means for reducing workplace anxiety. The article goes on to emphasize that organizations should show concern for employee well-being by offering compassion, honesty, and openness while actively listening and communicating frequently, further reducing uncertainty. Also, managers should be trained in mental health literacy and how to talk about mental health, psychological first-aid, and how the EAP system works. Finally, the article suggests involving employees in discussions about their workspace, what might change, and what they need to cope. Employees who are informed and participate in decisions about their own space have greater psychological comfort in the workspace.

As more agencies require at least partial return to the office, there are things that both employees and their leaders can do to ease this transition and reduce anxiety and uncertainty that linger as artifacts of the pandemic.

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