5 things to look out for in your employees as we return to the office (or not)

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A few weeks ago,  I made the decision to take some leave for my mental health and that of my family. It was a heart-wrenching realisation, I had to admit to my manager I had nothing left in the tank. It felt profoundly sad. The adrenal exhaustion as a result of holding it all together for over 8 long months. My body told me I just couldn’t ‘just push through” to  Christmas. I’m definitely not alone in this and therein lies the need for employers to carefully evaluate employee support as they plan their return to work strategies.

So, what should leaders and organisations look out for while planning the post-COVID world of work?

1. As a parent, your employees have had to juggle at least three roles this year

For the past 10 months,  parents have taken on additional roles to support the family, from navigating the emotional rollercoaster that is homeschooling to childcare. As a mother, a wife (of an essential worker), a childcare provider, entertainer, (a very average) part-time chef, cleaner, homeschooling teacher, and the main breadwinner, the mental load has been huge. It simply isn’t sustainable for many of us to “push through until Christmas”. 

As Circle In co-founder, Jodi Geddes, captured so perfectly in her video of one hour of homeschooling and working, it just isn’t sustainable to keep ‘pushing through’ month after month to the point of exhaustion.

I was able to connect with other organizations who gave me lots of resources and ideas to build a best practice policy. Thanks, the Circle In Slack community!

– Leah Ferguson, Senior Organizational Development Consultant at MYOB

2. Recognise that this Christmas will be a tough one for many

If your employees have families interstate or overseas, recognise that they will be hurting. As a New Zealander, I am unlikely to see my family anytime soon, which means I haven’t seen my parents or my brother for well over a year. My dad is getting older now and there is always the worry in the back of your mind. It’s harder still when you have to manage the expectations of a seven-year-old and explain why we can’t see her cousins this Christmas.

3. Understand that there is more going on than just Covid

I see all the classic signs of the 7 stages of grief all around me in the community  – anger, feelings of loss, frustration, wondering “ what if” and sadness. Grieving the loss of “what was” or what we took for granted, grieving lack of human connection with family,  our work colleagues, and our community.  I’ve grieved for the losses my daughter has experienced, as her friends left for other states or moved to rural Victoria to escape the lockdown. Each month, as yet another school friend announced their departure, there have been many tears and final ‘socially distanced” goodbyes, the lockdown wore on and it was tough to bear. Many people have experienced mental health issues themselves or had to support family members, some have lost loved ones and have not been able to grieve the loss fully due to COVID-19  restrictions on funerals.

Jane McDougle defined X as:

“The everyday, subtle, intentional – and oftentimes unintentional – interactions or behaviors that communicate some sort of bias toward historically marginalized groups.”

4. Expect that your employees may want to move states or desire more flexible arrangements:

If nothing else COVID-19 has forced us each to think about what’s really important to us in life. Chances are your job doesn’t fit into the top tier when you’re in survival mode. There is also tension for many between needing to slow down and the growing financial stress as mortgage holidays end or you find you’re supporting a partner who happens to be one of the thousands of people made redundant during Covid. 

Recent Roy Morgan surveys have revealed that 78% of people don’t want to return to the office full time and 48% don’t want to return to the office at all. Expect your employees to request time off to reflect, to reconfigure the way they work, to ask to reduce their days. The mental load we have been carrying has been immense.

5. Mental health is more than R U OK?

The constant moving goalposts and the highs and lows of the “Coronacoaster” has taken its toll on all of us. A study at Carnegie Mellon University led by Sheldon Cohen, cites “We know that people experiencing ongoing conflicts with others are less able to fight off cold viruses.  We also know that people who report having social support are partly protected from the effects of stress on psychological states, such as depression and anxiety.” 

Don’t wait for your employees to ask for help, offer additional personal leave, or ask them what kind of support they need. If it’s an option, run a survey on how they want to work and use this data to create a more compassionate working environment. Jeff Weiner, CEO of Linkedin, cites managing with compassion as one of the most important aspects of an organisation’s culture.

The number one asset your company has is its talent. The result of not addressing the mental fatigue of your staff could be costly to deal with. As the founder of the PwC parents group, I know first hand that the number one reason employees stayed (even when offered significantly better pay or a better role) was the empathy the business showed for their mental health and the flexibility they offered in the stressful early years of parenting. It isn’t hard to lead with empathy and it’s free.


Written by Fiona Wilhelm. Fiona is the Business Innovator for KPMGs Innovation Solutions and Ventures practice,  where she helps teams to identify potential  innovation and growth opportunities. She is an advocate for parents at work and women in leadership. Fiona is a board director for Splendour Life, and is currently authoring a book on how to pivot after redundancy. When not at work, you can find her cycling or spending time with her husband and seven-year-old daughter.

For more resources on how you can support your carers and upskill your managers, have a chat with us here

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