Eighteen Seventy Learning
ted Education - Training programmes support teachers and school leaders at all levels – from new teachers through to trust CEOs.

The Anxious Conversation

Whether the Prime Minister’s latest announcement gave us clarity or otherwise, for those who can’t work from home, the prospect of returning to the workplace has raised anxiety levels for many.

What is clear, is that if we are to invite colleagues back to work, we need to do so with an understanding that we’re not all in the same boat and our colleagues’ emotional responses to these challenges may be driven by many factors, for example;

  • How will I get to work safely?
  • How will infection control be minimised in the communal kitchen area?
  • How do I socially distance on a building site?
  • Am I willing to take the risk of infecting those I return home to?
ted Education - Training programmes support teachers and school leaders at all levels – from new teachers through to trust CEOs.
What Can We Do As Leaders and How Can We Do It With Our Hearts First?

With many sectors having restrictions lifted, leaders and managers are, and will soon be, responsible for inviting team members back to work. Let’s do it with compassion and understanding:

Keep It Personal

Difficult conversations are often ones we tend to script for, and whilst having your key points noted down can help you focus and not lose track, allowing the conversation to grow out of a few key questions and demonstrating genuine curiosity will help to create the rapport and trust early on.

Always be mindful of your own views and feelings on the return to work, these can seep into the dialogue. Leading questions such as; “It’s great news isn’t it?”, “We’re all really looking forward to things getting back to normal, are you?” can alienate and add to the isolation and anxiety our people may be experiencing.

“I wanted to talk to you about your return to work and understand what your thoughts and feelings were about that.” sets the tone better than “I wanted to talk to you about your return to work next week”.

Our Theatre Based Learning mental health awareness workshop utilises actors to show some of the scenarios where mental wellbeing might not be appreciated or recognised. We blend theory with practical steps that can be taken to support.
Make It Two Way – Share the Ownership

Understanding what may be difficult for our people and what their stresses and anxieties might allow us to begin a two-way conversation where both can own their part.

Responding to a colleague who is experiencing stress isn’t about having all the answers, the Mental Health Foundation training teaches us that listening non-judgementally and encouraging colleagues to consider what resources or support they already have available to help them is, in itself a demonstration that we ‘hold hope’. It also supports colleagues beyond this event, meaning they are more likely to consider these factors first if they find themselves struggling in the future.

Follow up this approach with questions around what you can do to support them or make things easier and agree together what your combined next steps will be.

Be Prepared

Team members’ concerns about a return to work will be diverse and you may not be able to anticipate them all but you can be ready for what’s likely. The Government has already set out guidance on how employers can ensure a safe return to work for their employees https://www.gov.uk/guidance/working-safely-during-coronavirus-covid-19.

There may be other factors specific to your sector or workplace which you can foresee as being of concern to people. Be ready, and if you don’t have the answers, be honest and be clear in terms of how and when you will be able to respond and acknowledge that this lack of information is of understandable concern. It’s your timely follow up of this request for more information or clarity which will build trust far more than ‘not knowing right now’ will erode it.

Signpost Help

If your organisation has an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) make sure you signpost this. Most EAPs have a counselling service and advice on family and financial problems. It may have been mentioned at induction and be on notice boards at work, but this is unlikely to be something your people will think about accessing unless you suggest it. There is also evidence to suggest that low-level promotion of EAP results in it being used for crisis and situations which have already reached a serious stage only, so promoting this service more readily may mean it is utilised before things reach this point.

The following is not exhaustive but may be useful to share with your people if they share such concerns with you:


Anxiety UK | www.anxietyuk.org.uk | email: [email protected] | phone: 08444 775 774

No Panic | www.nopanic.org.uk | email: [email protected] | phone: 0844 967 4848


Refuge | www.refuge.org.uk | email: [email protected] | Freephone (24/7) 0808 2000 247

Crisis and emotional support helplines for everyone

Samaritans | www.samaritans.org | email: [email protected] | Freephone (24/7) 116 123

Saneline | www.sane.org.uk | Phone: 0300 304 7000 | Out of hours support 6pm – 11pm 7 days p/w


Yes, it’s a metaphor, but a really important one. Supporting your colleagues through their stresses and anxieties can impact on your own mental health. Take time building yourself awareness around when you yourself may be experiencing stress. Understanding your own stress is in itself a huge step towards releasing the tap on your stress container.

ted Education - Training programmes support teachers and school leaders at all levels – from new teachers through to trust CEOs.
Patrick Holtby

Patrick has been part of the ted Learning team since soon after the business was formed. He has worked extensively within transport, manufacturing and pharmaceutical sectors as well as in hospitality.

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