The BBC 1990’s comedy sitcom Keeping Up Appearances featured a woman aspiring to climb up the social ladder, whilst stuck between her middle-class working family and her aspirations to be rich and impress successful people. The premise of the show was to comedically demonstrate the extremes that people (in this case Hyacinth “Bouquet” as she pronounced her surname) will adopt to “put on a show” and be something they are not……
This sitcom was an extreme example, and the behaviors and attitudes were easy to identify with and understand, but what about colleagues and employees that have been hidden from view for the last 16 months? Is there a cohort of employees dreading the return to work because they’ve forgotten how to be “the best version of themselves?” Does this resonate with how our employees are thinking now, that return to work is now the expectation?
The return to office “façade” might just be the worst thing that employees are considering when planning their first day back in the office. As we know the last 18 months have had a lasting effect on people’s lives and their mental health and the long-lasting repercussions of the pandemic are likely to be felt for many years to come, whether as a result of long covid or because of the changes and adaptations made to lives and the working environment during that time.
It’s clear that many workers have been struggling behind the scenes and resilience has been hit hard. Fears about coming back to the office are neither surprising nor irrational as when employees return to work, they will expect the familiar and will reach for the autopilot way of operating which is unlikely to exist.
According to a new research report published by Lime Global Ltd, 25% of respondents to their survey about how pleasanteeism is eroding resilience, reported that they are worried about how to “present “themselves when they eventually have to face colleagues face to face and “in the flesh” again.
So, what is pleaseanteeism? In basic terms, it’s the feeling that employees need to pretend they are okay even when they are not in front of their colleagues as defined by Emma Greedy HR Magazine 4th August 2021.
But why do workers and employees feel the need to hide their emotions at work? Emotions are of course a normal part of being human, they are proof that we are gaining experience of life and the complexities it presents good and bad. A variety of reports and studies before the pandemic in 2020 demonstrated that the majority of employees hide the emotions they are experiencing and often avoid asking for help, even if the emotions they are experiencing impact them in the workplace. Employees who have been on furlough or facing the risk of redundancy need equal support and organisations too will need help with seeking support with redundancy support services or how to manage a TUPE transfer – businesses seek help when they need it but employees and colleagues avoid being honest. This “approach” and covering up has been exacerbated in some cases by the working from home regime and employees have been able to “hide” their feelings more easily as they have not had the daily scrutiny of working alongside colleagues face to face.
It’s understood that establishing a workplace environment where people can share their emotions will likely lead to greater productivity, innovation and creativity, alongside enabling support and understanding, however, in some cases people are still taught to put their emotions to one side at work and bottle up their frustrations as leaders require harmony and want to avoid disruption.
So, if employees continue to put themselves under pressure to “mask “ their mental health and pretend, how can HR and Line Managers help employees now that they are returning to the office with a greater change to manage?
Putting on a brave face takes energy and effort and workers focusing on being the best version of themselves carry a heavy emotional load, as suppressing and hiding feelings, biting your lip, turning the other cheek and ignoring how you really feel can all contribute to a build-up of stress, anxiety and ultimately burnout.
There are steps that individuals and organisations can take to prevent burnout. Limiting overtime, insisting on regular breaks, taking allocated holiday entitlement, tackling conflict with colleagues through the right channels early can all help alongside investing in a healthy and fulfilling life outside of work. A climate of authenticity at work should be encouraged and will be beneficial especially at this time, whether you need HR support for a small business or simply doing the best for your colleagues and employees.
Encouraging honesty and authenticity (supporting it from the top of the organisation) will help to encourage empathy, whilst allowing workers to maintain emotional separation when necessary. Disingenuous behaviour and communication take effort – energy that could be channelled into delivering real output and genuine value.
Simple initiatives and back to work orientations might be helpful – transitioning back to long commutes and walking away from the home environment might take some employees time to adapt – just like working from home back in March 2020.
Talk and Connect with your colleagues
Allowing employees to talk about what anxieties they may be feeling and sharing or indeed hiding is imperative. Employees should be encouraged to pay close attention to what they are feeling and how it might impact them and their colleagues when they return. Take the time to talk through what the protocols will be, what might be different, who will be in the office and what the expectations will be. Managers should be planning a return to the office conversation with each of their team and sharing their thoughts and feelings to encourage an open dialogue.
It is also a good idea to invest in a dedicated employee communications platform. With more companies moving to hybrid working models, having a consistent approach to internal comms is vital. Not only will it streamline communications and boost productivity, but ensure that no one is left out if their working patterns or location is different.
So, what are the top tips for welcoming your team back?
- Be understanding and remember that some will find this challenging
- Follow the Government guidelines and ensure your health and safety assessments are up to date and available for reassurance as needed
- Communicate and keep everyone informed (including those on leave)
- Be mindful and transparent about how the workplace is going to work in the future even if it does involve more difficult topics
- Engage with all of your colleagues on a more regular basis and direct them to help and information such as redundancy support services
- Be particularly aware and in touch with employees wellbeing and health, and seek wider support if you need HR support as a small business for example
- Maintain flexibility options to support colleagues that need it if possible
- Take time to review the last 16 months and what positives have been found – look to develop the positive outcomes
- Focus on team spirit and working collaboratively – relationships may need rebuilding, new people may have joined the teamwork hard on connection, trust and reframing the psychological contract
- Reflect on your own approach, feelings, concerns, methods of coping and communication.
Nicky is Head of Organisational Change and HR Services at Connor. She has an extensive background that includes roles in Sales and Marketing, Procurement Consultancy and HR Business Partnering.