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As workplaces reopen in Singapore, how should companies deal with employee re-entry anxiety?

People will tend to experience a rollercoaster of emotions when they begin to step back into society

Re-entry anxiety refers to a new trend where individuals experience higher levels of stress in response to the fear of changes that will happen when they are able to socialise, shop and travel again. We find out how, as re-entry anxiety kicks in, we will tend to experience a rollercoaster of emotions when we begin to step back into society.

After managing to get control of the Covid-19 pandemic, Singapore decided to re-open workplaces on 5 April, where up to 75% of workers will be allowed at their workplaces at any point and split team arrangements will no longer be compulsory.

However, a majority of Singaporeans still prefer to work remotely, The Straits Times has found. This could result in Singaporeans experiencing varying degrees of anxiety and even adjustment disorder.

This a common diagnosis where individuals experience higher levels of stress in response to an unfamiliar or changing environment. Since the circuit breaker was implemented a year ago, Singaporeans have already faced a considerable amount of compounded stress and anxiety as seen in the 23% increase in the number of calls made to mental health hotlines during this period.

At PSB Academy, the private school recognises that staff may wish to continue with the practice adopted since the gradual re-opening of the Singapore economy, says Cecilia Yeoh, the vice president for human resource at PSB Academy.

Hence, it will continue to allow staff the option to work from home in alternate weeks. Staff may return to the office at any time while adhering to safe distancing measures and overall capacity limits. PSB’s lecturers will also continue to adopt flexible work practice which was in place even before the pandemic started.

“A gradual transition to the workplace (as compared to an abrupt back-to-normal change) is important to ensure that the employees have time to adjust their routines and that we play our part to keep the community cases low,” she advises.

“Any mental and emotional support implemented during the pandemic should also be continued to ensure that employees are supported if they have any difficulties in the transition”.

Chad Yip, a clinical psychologist for Noah & Zoey, a digital health platform for men and women explains as re-entry anxiety kicks in, people will tend to experience a rollercoaster of emotions when they begin to step back into society.

“The brain will create negative scenarios as a protective mechanism. These anxious thoughts tend to affect our ability to maintain healthy routines and our engagement with others. If this goes into overdrive it can manifest as symptoms of anxiety,” he says.

“Companies should prioritise employee well-being by putting the well-being of their employees at the forefront. Have regular check-ins with employees to understand how they are coping with the whole situation. This encourages open conversations with the employees and allows for any warning signs of emotional distress to be identified ahead of time.”

He continues: “They should also implement effective mental health support programmes by introducing external mental health programmes so that employees can seek professional help when needed. With the advent of telehealth, these programmes can come in the form of online therapy sessions. According to a study, online therapy sessions were found to be 80% or more effective than traditional in-person therapy and counselling. This provides more convenience and flexibility for employees to schedule a session as they do not need to spend time commuting or waiting.”

Yip also advises companies not to rush to bring all the employees back into the office and offer flexibility according to employees’ preferences and personal commitments. He explains the past year of working from home has proven to be largely effective for the majority of the industries in Singapore. As such, companies should allow employees to make their own choices to encourage a gradual shift back to fully reopened workplaces.

Otherwise, he cautions that employees who experienced sudden change might find it a shock to their daily routines as they had to spend their whole day at home and try to manage both their work and personal lives.

This could result in employees having symptoms that can include irregular eating and sleeping habits, inability to engage in activities that were once enjoyed, feelings of heightened physiological anxiety-like heart racing and a decrease in work productivity.

“Some might have experienced working from home fatigue whereby they lost social connections and found it difficult to draw the line between their work and personal lives. These would result in symptoms such as feeling restless, sad, helpless, and frustrated or being irritable and sensitive,” he explains.

“Anxiety disorders might interfere with the quality of your life and might have serious consequences on your physical and mental health. For one, it might cause headaches as your brain releases more stress hormones on a regular basis. It might also lead to digestive issues. Some might experience a weakened immune system.”

He adds: “Anxiety disorders often occur alongside other mental health disorders such as depression. So, it is important that we seek professional help for anxiety disorders to understand how these problems can be overcome early.

For employees who are experiencing re-entry anxiety, Yip says they can alleviate their anxieties by taking baby steps to develop new habits like taking public transport to work during non-peak hours, keeping a journal to document their thoughts as journaling can have positive health benefits.

Most importantly, they need to seek professional help if things get overwhelming if feel like their problems is not going away despite their best efforts.

The future of work will continue to have hybrid arrangements in place with the flexibility to work from home, predicts PSB’s Yeoh, stressing that while restrictions have been eased for more employees to return to the office, the fight against Covid-19 is not over.

“This sort of hybrid work arrangement will bring about a new set of skills and a new set of expectations for employees, present and future, such as tech-savviness or the ability to execute projects and campaigns virtually,” she explains.

“To ensure the well-being of employees, organisations need to communicate frequently and recognise the signs of employee burnout or anxiety when it happens.”

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