Returning to the Office after Lockdown

Colleagues in the office

After nearly 2 years, Covid forced a very large chunk of the workforce to quickly adapt to working from home. For some, it was a smooth transition, for others - more challenging. Now that so much time has passed, many of us may be feeling apprehensive about the big return. As offices all around the country prepare to welcome staff back, there’s lots to consider. We caught up with Michelle Dolan, a psychologist and senior wellbeing consultant at Irish Life, for some advice on how to prepare.

Your Feelings are Legitimate

The main thing to remember is that there’s no right or wrong way to feel about going back. “It’s not a case of ‘one size fits all’,” Michelle begins. “There’s still a lot of uncertainty for employees. If you suffer from anxiety, that sense of being in limbo may exacerbate your symptoms.” She notes that while some people have completely adapted to working from home and would happily continue, others miss the structure of a day in the office. “As well as routine, the social aspect is beneficial to lots of people’s mental health.” For busy parents, or those living in confined accommodation, work can be an outlet as well as a place they've established close friendships.

Communicating Your Fears

It’s no surprise that lots of workplaces are offering a ‘blended’ option, where staff work a mix of days at home and in the office. Even so, just one commute might raise anxiety around mixing in large crowds or taking public transport. Are employees happy communicating these fears to their bosses? “There’s always a fear of opening up”, says Michelle, “in case there are repercussions. Like, ‘what if this affects my job?’ At the start of Covid, we were worried about the physical effects of lockdown, now people are more focused on the mental. It’s hard to measure that though, as some people will be more open than others.”

Advice for Employers

So, what can employers do to make sure staff receive as much inclusive support as possible? “They can start by establishing a vision of where they want to go”, says Michelle, “but prioritise taking staff along with them on that journey.” This means opening lines of communication and leading by example.  “It’s important to have team leaders on board - if they’re not happy, it will trickle down.” This handy infographic highlights the many reasons why staff well-being is in the interest of the entire company, and is worth sharing with senior management – especially if you’re meeting resistance. It’s also useful to have management trained in mental health awareness. “That way”, says Michelle, “they have the skillset to talk to an employee who might be feeling hesitant.” Another option is to engage with professional help if a significant amount of the workforce is struggling. This will also send the message that mental health is a priority for the company.

Colleagues return to the office

Advice for Employees 

Finally, what strategies can employees proactively put in place to help get them ready for what could be an uncertain few months? “It’s all about self-care", says Michelle, “and taking small steps towards building resilience. If we don’t have good coping strategies and we already feel anxious, we need to put steps in place to avoid becoming overwhelmed.” Sleep, diet and exercise are huge factors for mental health, so ensure that you’re taking enough downtime, nourishing your body with healthy food, and getting out regularly for a brisk walk or jog. And remember, if you’re feeling very anxious, don’t be afraid to reach out to a family member, friend or health professional for advice on how best to deal with it.

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