May 15, 2020

Planning For The Rebound: Step 15 – Addressing Employee Return-To-Work Anxieties

By now, you’ve likely digested numerous guidelines for ensuring your workplace is a clean and safe space for your employees once they return to work. If not – check out our prior posts about proper hygiene and ways to make your office compliant with social distancing mandates.

In honor of National Mental Health Month, and while diligently sanitizing your office and physically preparing it to welcome back your employees, it is important not to overlook another consideration that may contribute to employee hesitancy to return: general anxiety about coming back to the office.

What can and should you do about employees who express fear or voice concern about reporting back to work? The answer may not be clear, and the typical, often justifiably loathed, lawyer response of “it depends” is more applicable than ever in these uncertain times. Nevertheless, the following approach can help you effectively manage return-to-work stress while keeping employee mental health and morale from dipping.

The first step is to recognize and appreciate that employees may be concerned about returning to work for a variety of reasons. These reasons can be complex, unique to the employee’s circumstance, and could expand beyond fear of contracting the virus at work or on their commute (if they use public transportation). Understand that COVID-19-related stress may not manifest in the same way for everyone and that employees may be coping with it differently.

Keeping this baseline awareness in mind, try to figure out what’s driving the employee’s concerns. Are they concerned about enhanced caretaking responsibilities for children or elders? Are they worried about the increased risk of infection for themselves or their loved ones? Perhaps they are just generally concerned about the uncertainty of what’s to come whether at work or otherwise. Whatever the case, identifying what is at the heart of the employee’s concerns is a crucial step in helping you fashion an effective solution.

Next, make sure you are adequately prepared to address your employees’ concerns by responding to their questions and connecting them with the appropriate resources.

For instance, if you have an employee who is fearful of getting infected, remind and assure them of the safety precautions you are taking to create a safe work environment. Alternatively, determine if remote work is a viable option, to ease their anxiety and make their transition back to work more palatable. We’ve previously explored the nuances that offering or continuing remote work due to employee fear of returning to the office may present. At the end of day, it’s wiser to err on the side of flexibility with remote work options to maximize employee productivity, which may be sacrificed if the employee is required to report to work when they are not mentally ready to do so.

Finally, inform them that they may be qualify for protected leave under federal, state, and/or local laws and may be eligible for worker’s compensation in the event they contract the virus or if they are taking care of others who have been infected. Be sure to consult your employment attorney to make sure your policies are up to date.

Pay even closer attention if you sense that the employee’s concerns are deeper than general apprehension. Be mindful that stress caused by the pandemic can intensify other anxieties or underlying conditions for the employee, which could prevent them from performing the essential functions of their position. In these situations, the employee’s condition may qualify as a disability under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act or the federal American with Disabilities Act, triggering an affirmative obligation for you to engage in a good-faith interactive process with the employee to identify a reasonable accommodation.

Likewise, if the fearful employee is an older individual, keep in mind that being a part of an especially vulnerable population may heighten the employee’s anxieties which, if inappropriately addressed, could potentially raise age discrimination implications down the line.

While many of these conversations will inevitably take place once your established return-to-work date is approaching, there are certain preventative measures you can implement right away to get ahead of the curve:

Communicate with your employees early and often in order to mitigate uncertainty about what to expect when they physically return to work. Provide detailed descriptions of what the office will look like, and thoroughly explain the new policies to which they will be expected to adhere. Reassure employees that you are taking carefully considered safeguards to prioritize their well-being.

Consider expanding your leave and PTO policies to account for the current climate. This could include implementing a temporary policy that offers additional PTO or establishes a leave bank specifically designed for COVID-19-related stress. Flexibility around leave and sick time policies, to the extent possible, can provide your employees a cushion, allowing them extra time to cope with and process the transition. Prior to doing so, be certain to talk through all available options with your legal counsel.

Emphasize the importance of regular breaks. In addition to breaks you are already mandated by law to provide, encourage your employees to take the time they need throughout the day to clear their head so they can relax and recharge. That coveted work-life balance is more important than ever as employees are experiencing previously uncharted layers of stress.

Remind employees that support is available. Draw your employee’s attention to the various resources available to them under your medical plan, such as counseling services or other Employee Assistance Programs, if they feel that stress or anxiety is becoming unmanageable. You may also consider setting up additional resources that specifically focus on grappling with COVID-19-related concerns. For inspiration, sneak a peek at these helpful resources compiled by the CDC.

Most importantly, remember to approach this transition with patience and empathy. Understand that employees may not readily bounce back, and business may not resume its usual course right away. Adjusting your practices and managing expectations up front will go a long way towards speeding recovery towards a “new normal.”


Questions about COVID-19 and the workplace? Contact the Hirschfeld Kraemer lawyer who normally provides your legal advice, or you can reach out to Netta Rotstein in Hirschfeld Kraemer’s Los Angeles office,, (310) 255-1807.

Did you miss previous posts in our Planning For The Rebound series? Click on the links below:
Step 1 – Requirements For Returning To The Workplace
Step 2 – Do I Have To Bring Back Furloughed or Laid-Off Employees?
Step 3 – Do Employers Need to Bring Back Under-Performers?
Step 4 – Ready To Go Back To Work? Not So Fast …
Step 5 – Passing the Test: COVID-19 Screening in the Workplace
Step 6 – Deciding Which Employees Can Return To The Workplace
Step 7 – Workplace Safety: Posters Are Not Enough
Step 8 – Safety Tips For Allowing Vendors and Visitors Into Your Workplace
Step 9 – Meal and Break Room Safety
Step 10 – Hygiene Tips For A Safe, Clean Workplace
Step 11 – A Workable Plan For Social Distancing
Step 12 – Dealing With Requests To Work Remotely: Separating Facts From Fear
Step 13 – Is Work Travel A Thing Of The Past?
Step 14 – New Hires and Offer Letters During COVID-19

For additional employer-focused information about COVID-19:
Click here to see the Hirschfeld Kraemer EMPLOYER’S GUIDE TO CORONAVIRUS