Posted 05 May 2021
Are We All Hermits Now? Tips For Transitioning Back To Work
Across Europe and North America the end of lockdown restrictions is in sight and it is time to think about a return to workplaces. For some this is the long-awaited freedom they have been craving and will boost mental health issues caused by social isolation and a loss of routine. Those who have been vaccinated will also undoubtedly feel a little more relaxed knowing they are now less likely to become seriously ill as they return to a more regular life.
For many neurominorities, and those with reactive anxiety / depression, the big change in routine, the health risks and uncertainty about what might happen next might all be having an impact. Many of us got used to the limited sensory overwhelm in lockdown and are really concerned about the idea of ramping back up to the hamster wheel of commuting. Rethink.org recently conducted a survey to find out some of the causes of lockdown-ending anxiety and used the results to compile some really helpful advice for individuals in the UK to help them manage.
Providing much needed workplace support and flexibility will be a key part of addressing this problem in the coming months, as will being aware of people’s individual circumstances rather than treating all employees as a homogenous group.
Notice The Signs
As a colleague or manager, things to look out for are both physical and behavior related. If you notice someone seems physically unwell or exhausted remember that this could be anxiety related and don’t simply write it off as being “run down”. It is incredibly physically tiring to be in a state of fight or flight all the time. If someone is having big reactions to minor problems, needing lots of time off, struggling to accept feedback or manage deadlines then this could also be a sign that they need additional mental health support. Seemingly unable to focus, concentrate or remember can be anxiety-related but also symptomatic of “long covid”.
During this pandemic many have lost loved ones without being able to say goodbye. Some have experienced the break down of relationships or dealt with financial insecurity, others have had issues surrounding health or social interaction triggered. This deep emotional toll will undoubtedly manifest in the form of anxiety at times and the colleagues you had eighteen months ago may be different. Not all change is bad, research has identified a response called “post traumatic growth” as the antithesis to post traumatic stress disorder, however this is heavily reliant on the resources available and isn’t immediate. Relationships and hopeful opportunities are key, this we can do together.
Plan To Accommodate
It’s going to be wobbly for a while. This is predictable, so plan for it.
Provide access to professional support from an independent source. In my business we have made confidential free counselling available to the whole team and the response has been fantastic.
Another policy we have adopted is practicing “pre-forgiveness”. Realizing that people may be short on patience and more likely to lash out we have tried to remember to let the small stuff go and not turn minor squabbles into major issues. This does not mean a consequence free environment of course, simply one where we are allowing for emotional reactions without being too quick to assume motive or apply harsh repercussions.
Be flexible. You may have people who now require more work from home days than before to avoid the overwhelm of the commute, the busy office or perhaps to act as a carer for someone at home. We have seen that working from home does not destroy productivity (as was the common belief before the pandemic) so accommodate this wherever possible and look into ways you can help make the office or workspace less anxiety inducing. Allow those that need it to come back gradually by creating a phased return plan together.
Build in decompression days when their emotions have built up and need a release, or perhaps because of intense fatigue. Allow them to make up the missed time and keep the lines of communication open, you will find people are generally keen to make sure they don’t let you down. I recently asked my business partner to change my email password for three days as I just needed to focus and it was brilliant! Three days with an “out-of-office” auto-responder isn’t going to damage business, but it made all the difference to me after a weekend of socializing that completely, unexpectedly drained my social battery. Other companies are running zoom-free Fridays and other initiatives to support decompression time, you can make a plan that suits your team, department or company.
Be Disability Inclusive
One source of anxiety that I am particularly aware of in my line of work is that the world will go back to being less accommodating to the disabled community. There are some for whom the lockdown has been a blessing; reduced social pressures, a willingness to communicate remotely and a restructuring of the workplace that has suddenly made jobs more accessible is suddenly at risk. Will all meetings go back to being face to face? Will new jobs now refuse candidates who find it hard to travel? Will the socialising in the pubs mean that co-workers and friends are no longer available to have watch parties and Whatsapp chats with those who cannot easily go out? As we move forward cautiously with the lifting of restrictions, let’s think about what things from the last year we should be keeping or adjusting so that neurodivergent and disabled people aren’t being excluded.
Be Mindful Of Worldwide Trends
As the western economies start planning for comparatively normal working conditions in the Indian subcontinent, Africa and South America are less secure. Appreciate that the enthusiasm and joy expressed by some will feel bittersweet to those who have relations abroad and who might find it painful to watch their countries suffering. Consider raising money or taking part in activities that demonstrate solidarity.
The wave of anxiety that is upon us must not be swept under the rug by those who cannot relate. Suppressing feelings will only ensure they pop up elsewhere and find different ways to come out. Note the example of “Basecamp” a US company who issued a memo forbidding all staff from discussing politics, world events and removing pastoral commitments for mental health. Since the memo, around a third of Basecamp’s employees have tendered their resignation. A less ostentatious pronouncement of suppression will still have a negative effect, it will just be a slower drip of exits rather than a swoop.
In summary, make time for your colleagues, find out what they are dealing with and make a plan. Companies are part of our community expression, they are a fundamental feature of our lives and personal identities. We aren’t separate at work to who we are at home, employers can manage this boundary by providing spaces for expression. Ignorance is not bliss right now!