Any return to the workplace, whether it’s after a medical or parental leave  — or say, following a global pandemic — requires consideration and care to ensure the psychological health and safety of employees.

Every back-to-workplace plan, regardless of the context, should be developed in partnership with each individual employee and driven by their physical and mental well-being. The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted employees and workplaces the world over, unsettling when, where and how we work. On the upside, organizations can use this time of disruption to rethink and redesign their workplaces, starting with how to return to in-person work.

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  • Engaging employees

Employers should empower employees by engaging them in decisions. Before organizations even start to think next steps for their workforce, employers should make sure to ask staff what they want. Then organizations can create a process that lets employees tell them what’s best for them. Whether or not they can accommodate all requests, when employers engage with employees in the decision-making process that helps staff gain a professional and personal stake in the decision and in the organization.

  • Creating a plan

Next, employers can draft a plan that suits both the needs of the organization and incorporates employees’ feedback, as much as possible. Of course, employers should be sure to comply with rules and directives from local, provincial and federal governments and stay on top of changes as things are moving fast. Employers will want to be flexible as possible though as employees will have different needs. If feasible, take a flexible and phased approach to help employees come back to the workplace.

Read: Editorial: Digital inclusion, employee support, flexibility key in return to the workplace

  • Communication, communication and more communication

The return to the workplace can spark anxiety and uncertainty in employees, but developing a clear and consistent communications strategy can help put them at ease. Positive and regular communication can boost employee morale, help employees feel confident in the process and reassure them it’s OK to approach their supervisor with questions and concerns. It’s important to clearly communicate dates, expectations and additional safety measures. Because new staff may have joined, employers should consider all the information they’ll need to feel comfortable and safe coming back to the office.

  • Prepare, prepare, prepare

Employers should prepare the physical workplace. A key element of psychological health and safety is protecting physical safety. Leaders need to make sure they’ve covered all the bases. Depending on the organization and office space, preparing the workplace might include things like ensuring sanitation, thorough and regular cleaning of the premises and setting up socially-distanced workspaces.

Read: Study finds burnout, stress symptoms on the rise 18 months into the pandemic

Employers will also want to give employees time to mentally prepare for coming back. The earlier the return-to-workplace plan is communicated, the better. Employers can also prepare if they’re offering flexibility in terms of the date of return and/or frequency and then encourage employees to take advantage of that flexibility. It’s also important to encourage staff to prepare mentally and identify healthy strategies to cope with stress and anxious feelings.

  • Providing options for health, wellness

Employee health and psychological well-being need to be top priorities right now. Organizations should consider providing additional supports through extended benefits for mental-health supports, as well as additional education or training. For employers that already have supports in place, staff can be reminded about what’s available when they’re returning to the workplace. It’s also good practice for employers to keep a list of resources in the community they can provide to staff.

  • Checking in

Leaders and managers should be encouraged to engage in open and honest conversations with employees in regular one-on-ones when they can ask staff how they’re doing, address concerns and look for ways the organization can support them.

Leaders and managers can show empathy by validating feelings and concerns, as employees may be feeling anxious about all the change over the past 19 months. The more genuine and regular the check-ins, the better, as employers can then understand and solve problems before they become major challenges.

Read: Employers prioritizing mental health, permanent hybrid work 1.5 years into pandemic

How workplaces will look in the future depends on how well employers consider employee psychological health and safety. The first step will always be engaging employees in the process to open lines of communication and increase transparency. Organizations should ensure employees feel included and heard.

Whatever the future holds, it’s simple: if employers don’t care about workers, then workers won’t care about their work. Employers can use this time to reimagine the new normal and be creative, flexible and accommodating as Canada and the world starts planning for how work will look post-pandemic.