Employee anxiety about returning to the office is sky-high. Now what?

Employee anxiety about returning to the workplace is soaring, a new study finds–research that may give employers pause regarding their back to office plans.

Data out Tuesday from Limeade finds that a shocking 100% of employees surveyed are anxious about returning to the workplace, citing concerns over exposure to COVID-19, less flexibility and commuting to work. The employee experience company surveyed 4,553 full-time employees in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States to find employees’ reasons for anxiety as employers rush to re-open their doors.

Of the employees surveyed who were working on-site pre-pandemic but now are working from home, all say they have some fear about returning to work. The vast majority (77%) cited being exposed to COVID-19 as their top source of anxiety, followed by less flexibility at 71% and commuting to work at 58%.

Lindsay Lagreid

“Given all that employees have experienced and endured over the past year and a half, it is not surprising that our research is showing that employees are hesitant to go back into the physical office and to let go of autonomy over their wellbeing,” says Lindsay Lagreid, senior adviser at the Limeade Institute.

The data, she says, reflects “the intersection of worry about COVID exposure and worry about losing the autonomy and flexibility the pandemic offered many people. The pandemic required us to completely rethink the way we get work done, and in doing so, we’ve found ways to honor and respect employees’ boundaries and humanity, and people are deeply concerned about losing that. As they should be.”

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The survey comes on the heels of recent research from FlexJobs, which also found that employees largely do not want to return to the office. The careers site, which surveyed more than 2,100 people who have been working remotely during the pandemic, found that a whopping 58% of workers say they would “absolutely” look for a new job if they weren’t allowed to continue working remotely in their current position, new data finds.

Related: Requiring employees to return to the office? Get ready for them to quit

The research is something employers would be wise to take into consideration as they think about bringing employees back into the workplace. Lagreid says employers and HR need to do a better job of asking for employees’ input and preferences about their working situation, especially in light of the findings.

“For HR leaders that are uncertain about whether or not to continue offering flexibility, the answer is simple–ask. In [Limeade’s] report, over half of respondents said they haven’t even been asked by their employer about their desires for what the next chapter looks like. This shows a real disconnect. It’s easy for employers to focus on rushing into the logistics of getting butts back in seats, but if we omit employees’ involvement and input in that process, this is incredibly problematic.”

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She adds that if most employees say they want to continue with flexible and remote work options, and employers overlook that and “try to snap back to pre-pandemic ways, you’ll erode trust and commitment to the organization and will leave your organization at risk for substantial turnover.”

“Employers need to be committed to acting on the feedback they receive,” she says. “Our research validates a lot of what we already suspected. It confirms what we’ve collectively experienced over the past year and a half–we have experienced more humanity at work than ever before and we cannot erase that. Humanity at work is here to stay. And employers will be hard-pressed to navigate around that humanity.”


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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.