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How and where we work may never be the same again. But as we adjust to living with COVID, what steps can organisations take to ensure an inclusive and supportive working environment for their employees?

The effects of COVID, on work and on our social lives, are bound to be felt for some time to come.

But with some of our major population centres emerging from prolonged periods of lockdown and rates of vaccination continuing to inch higher, is it right to expect that we snap back to our previous working conditions?

After almost two years in which employees across the country have learnt to juggle the often-competing demands of work and home life, sometimes under strict lockdown conditions, there’s much uncertainty about how to bring people back under the same roof – and whether that’s a goal to aim for at all.

Joanne Turner, Allianz Manager of Psychological Services, manages the Psychological Injury Program for Allianz clients and provides mental health support and awareness to Allianz employees. She says it’s imperative that organisations recognise that there is a diversity of views amongst employees about how they should return to work and that employers need to be responsive to the unique needs of those employees.

“Organisations really are dealing with diverse employee groups – some individuals are champing at the bit to get back to the workplace, some are extremely reticent, and in between are those who don’t have a strong feeling either way,” Joanne says.

“Employers can’t make any assumptions about anyone’s situation,” she says. “Just as people were unique in the way they worked from home, we need to be mindful about their unique needs now that they may have the option to come back into the workplace.”


Bouncing back from COVID

Mental health professionals such as Joanne say two themes tended to dominate discussions with employees about the challenges thrown up by COVID. People frequently reported feeling isolated from their immediate team and wider organisation; and they spoke of difficulties associated with drawing a line between home and work time.

Both problems have increased steadily in the last 18 months, and they will take some time to wind back.

According to Joanne, the most effective way to tackle the return-to-work conundrum is to have individual discussions with all team members.

“Organisations need to ask their employees what it is they want and they need to be upfront with them about the feedback they’ve gathered,” she says. “There needs to be consultation and buy-in from people about what things need to look like.”

She says managers can play a key role in facilitating the transition back to the workplace by opening up a dialogue with each of their direct reports.

“A good leader makes sure they have an understanding of their people and their concerns and that they’re prepared to work through those concerns where they exist.”

Just as managers need to have realistic expectations about their employees’ return to the workplace, they also need to be conscious of their own needs.

Being open and honest about their own return to work journey can help set the tone for their team to be open and honest in their responses.


The path forward

Joanne says she feels proud of the way that Allianz has supported its employees while they navigated the demands of working from home.

Among the initiatives set up within the Victorian Personal Injury business to help employees were general help hubs - virtual rooms manned by leaders during the day all day that employees could jump into to ask questions. An employee debriefing service set up in 2019, prior to the COVID outbreak, allowed employees to access internal counselling support and was utilised extensively during lockdown.

Now that many businesses are looking to transition their employees back into the workplace, she says the onus will be on them to implement measures that can help support the mental health of employees in the long term.

“Providing support services such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and dedicated mental health first aid officers can have a really positive effect,” she says. “So can conversations about the organisation’s mental health strategy and how its values align to it.”

Organisations can help promote self-care initiatives, such as educating employees about the importance of keeping physically fit and maintaining a healthy diet – and help facilitate these healthy lifestyle choices in the workplace.

Joanne is also an advocate for training of managers and other team members so they can identify the early signs of emotional strain in their colleagues.

“Training managers in an organisation to detect the signs and then pursuing an early intervention strategy is key to safeguarding employees’ wellbeing. Having leaders with the insight and emotional intelligence to reach out to people in need is one of the key ways an organisation can support its people.”

Check out the Allianz Workplace Mental Health Hub for other further resources.

This article has been prepared by Allianz Australia Insurance Limited ABN 15 000 122 850 AFSL234708 (“Allianz”). Information contained in this article is accurate as at 02 December 2021 and may be subject to change. In some cases information has been provided to us by third parties and while that information is believed to be accurate and reliable, its accuracy is not guaranteed in any way. Any opinions expressed constitute our views at the time of the issue and are subject to change. Neither Allianz, nor its employees or directors give any warranty of accuracy or accept responsibility for any loss or liability incurred by you in respect of any error, omission or misrepresentation in this article.