How forcing employees back to the office can backfire

Amanda felt she had no choice but to quit her job last spring when she was diagnosed with a chronic illness, while being asked to return to the office as cases of COVID-19 increased.

The Winnipeg-based nonprofit she worked for for seven years had lifted the mandatory mask requirements and Amanda, not her real name, had been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. She was afraid of being bedridden for weeks or even months if she got COVID-19.

Nevertheless, when her workplace asked employees to drop by at least twice a week, she tried for a short period of time.

“It was extremely stressful and I was constantly worried about my health,” she said. “I was really disappointed. I know there were other people who also felt unsafe going without a mask.”

Despite expressing her concerns repeatedly to her supervisor, nothing changed. So she found another job that allowed her to work remotely full-time.

With the government easing pandemic restrictions, employers expect workers to return to the office. But human resources experts are warning companies to stay flexible with their back-to-the-office requirements or risk losing employees.

Employers “should recognize that people are concerned about coming back. They may be immunocompromised, or they may have immunocompromised people at home. They have very real reasons for not wanting to return to work, so they need to respect those concerns,” said Janet Candido, a human resources specialist and owner of Candido Consulting Group, which provides HR services to 125 organizations.

“Tensions between employees and employers are definitely rising,” Candido says.

She estimates that 25 to 30 percent of workers are voicing concerns about the health of COVID-19 and some leave their jobs completely.

Candido said some employers who originally instituted a transition period to allow employees to return to the office now feel that the transition period is over and their employees want to return to the office.

But she urges employers to be more flexible. Unemployment is low and recruiting new talent can be difficult.

“Both sides are very entrenched in their positions and are heightening the tension. Employers find it very difficult to hire people at all levels,” says Candido.

To alleviate any brewing conflict, Candido advises employers to be compassionate and understanding of their employees’ concerns. She suggests setting up mental health support and making masks at least mandatory in the office.

The number of job openings in Canada has reached an all-time high of nearly one million, while unemployment remains low, Statistics Canada reports.

The combination could make employees less hesitant to leave companies that have strict back-to-work policies or don’t address health concerns.

As companies come under pressure to offer their workforce higher pay and hire skilled workers, the national average base salary increase for 2023 is projected to be 4.2 percent, according to a recent survey by consulting firm Eckler Ltd.

A recent survey by productivity software company OSlash on the “major disconnect” between bosses and employees found that 60 percent of employers said they would offer employees a hybrid work schedule if they refused to return to the office.

Only 20 percent would let employees work remotely again full-time.

Of the 800 home-based workers and 200 business leaders surveyed, nearly 80 percent of remote workers believe their employers would fire them if they said “no” to a return to office mandate.

Meanwhile, 78 percent of workers surveyed said they would be willing to make a pay cut to continue working from home, with Gen Z respondents being the most willing to do so.

“There is tremendous competition for talent for Canadian employers,” said Melissa Nightingale, co-founder of management training firm Raw Signal Group.

Nightingale warned that forcing resistant employees to go back to their pre-pandemic lives could drive talent out at a time when companies may be understaffed and when employees “have other opportunities often with direct competitors.”

The global shock of the pandemic has made people much more aware that everything can change at any moment, said Shimi Kang, a clinical associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of British Columbia.

“People are rethinking their priorities, including how they spend their time and their days. We see this happening in the ‘Great Resignation’, where people are choosing to have a better work-life balance,” Kang said.

Mental health problems are another factor, Kang said.

“There is increased anxiety, many people are burned out and need a break and there are big existential questions. People lost loved ones during the pandemic or are afraid of losing loved ones,” she said.

“All of this is making people rethink how they spend their time. If the workplace is not a place of joy, connection and achievement, then there would certainly be less interest in staying there.”

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