Expert says Kiwis suffering 'office anxiety' about returning to work post-COVID lockdowns

While the high of post-lockdown life has been sweet, new research shows many of us aren't quite ready to leave our COVID-free habitats. 

Research from Auckland University of Technology (AUT) shows at least half of employees have anxiety about returning to the workplace, fearful of catching the virus from their co-workers.

For many, after lockdowns and heading back to the office seemed like a holiday. 

"It's better than working from home, that's for sure," one person said. 

"It was quite good, we got the opportunity to socialise with people," another said.

But new research has revealed many of us have what's being called "office anxiety".

"To find half of the workforce has this sort of moderate level of anxiety was my biggest surprise," Professor of Human Resource Management at AUT Jarrod Haar said.

People have "office anxiety" because they fear catching COVID-19 when they return to their traditional work habits, from commuting on public transport, sitting near un-masked co-workers, or attending meetings in spaces that aren't designed for social distancing. 

"We've got two parts of the workplace in opposition, those who are cavalier and those who are cautious, that's going to cause a lack of harmony," Prof Haar said.

Earlier this month, tech giant Elon Musk issued an ultimatum to Tesla employees - return to work for at least 40 hours a week or lose your job. 

When asked on Twitter to elaborate, he replied: "They should pretend to work somewhere else".

But Prof Haar says his data highlights better ways to entice people back to the office - he calls it "decent work".

Prof Haar defines decent work as when an organisation offers adequate pay, safe spaces, good healthcare, has good values and offers enough time to rest. When an employee has decent work they have lower levels of anxiety and are less likely to quit. 

And it's clear, with COVID still rampant and the flu spreading more each day, a hybrid option between home and the office is needed for a while longer. 

"I think it's about being still quite flexible, at least until the end of this year," Prof Haar said.

And one last thing we can all do to make the office seem safer - mask up.