As many organisations work towards reopening and/or reintegrating employees back into the workplace, there is much to consider from a safety perspective, including risk assessments, infection control procedures and allowances for social distancing.

On top of this, is of course, the legal obligation to protect the mental health of their people, not to mention the commercial need to enable them to do a good job and this aspect of returning employees to the workplace is arguably the one that’s most important, and most complex.

 Considerations for returning to the workplace post Covid-19

What is the challenge specifically?

Since the middle of 2020, we have been supporting managers to better support their people with the unique challenges that working through the Covid-19 pandemic has brought.

An essential part of this has been helping employers and managers understand the additional considerations that Covid-19 has brought for people, and the impact on their wellbeing from a brain science perspective.

In an earlier blog post we talked about The Covid Effect which outlined these additional considerations, all of which will continue to have an impact on us as we transition back into the workplace. You can read our original blog post here.

These three additional considerations are represented as three A’s

The first is ATTENTION

As we shared previously, the enhanced attention we’ve all had to pay in the last year has kept us, to varying degrees, on small levels of consistent alert, and when small reasons for alert are combined, they create a hyper vigilance, which keeps our brain in attention mode all of the time.

Returning to the workplace after any extended period of absence creates a level of anxiety for most people.  However, prior to the pandemic, we would have at least had a relatively clear expectation of what we were returning to.

What returning to work in the current circumstances looks like is not clear at all.  And in fact, the one thing that is certain, is that it going to require us paying a lot more attention than we would have previously had to pay.

In addition to the considerations of hands, face and space, we will also need to pay attention to:

The journey to work:

Perhaps considering different methods of commuting: not using public transport where possible, traveling at off-peak times or maybe walking or cycling to work if parking is limited.

How we interact with colleagues:

Although we may not have seen our colleagues for some time and the temptation will be to shake hands, or hug one another, we will need to pay attention not doing that, but also to simple things like how close we are standing, moving out of the way as people pass us and not congregating around the toilets or drinks stations.

Keeping up to date on the changing rules:

We need to constantly pay attention to what we can and can’t do, take note of new advice, guidance or measures, understand the implications for different people in the workplace and of course, be prepared for the roadmap to change.

This constant attention is not only very taxing on the brain, but it also uses up energy that we are then not able to use for the things that perhaps would make us feel calmer, or more in control, and importantly, more able to focus on our wellbeing and/or our work.

It is therefore important for employers to have done the thinking and planning around both the logistics and practicalities of a return to the workplace and to ease the need for excessive levels of attention for their employees.

The second is ADAPTATION

We have all had to adapt continuously over the last year.

We adapted for the first lockdown, we adapted through the summer, with the introduction of the tier system, and then again, we adapted for the November and January lockdowns.

Arguably, we are now on the cusp of the most challenging adaptation yet, as we progress along the outlined roadmap back to our ‘new normal’.

When we first went into lockdown, we felt anxious about how we’d all adapt to a new way of living, different ways of keeping in touch with people and unfamiliar methods of working.  But we did it.

We humans, are exceptionally adept at adapting, but for many of us, the number of adaptions we’ve had to make over the year, are now taking their toll on our mental resilience.

As we ease out of lockdown and back to some level of normality, this latest adaptation requires people to step out of what has for many, become a perceived safe space. Our brain will initially interpret this as a threat and in order to successfully adapt, we have to overcome the perceived threat first, emotionally, and psychologically.

We might also find that we are continually having to adapt our emotional responses generally, switching between excitement about the lifting of restrictions and worry or concern about what the reality will be.

When our mental resilience is high, and we are operating mostly from our intellectual brain, we can adapt quickly with minimal disruption. However, when our mental resilience is low and we are operating from our primitive brain (in charge of our flight, flight, freeze response) this becomes more challenging, and our anxiety level starts to increase.

 It is therefore important for employers to ensure that people are able to ease themselves into these latest rounds of changes, so that the perceived threat is minimised and they are given the opportunity to adapt successfully and with relative ease.

The third is ANXIETY

All of this presents the opportunity for enhanced anxiety, on top of already raised levels of anxiety that many of us have experienced or are experiencing.

Many of us have been working from home for over a year now and day to day responsibilities and challenges which we previously would have taken in our stride, may be more difficult.  This feeling can be further exacerbated by the perceived threat from contracting or spreading Covid-19.

As with any change, pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zone, is initially interpreted as a threat by the brain and encourages the release of our stress hormone cortisol, a certain level of which is essential for helping us to cope with the perceived threat or challenge.

However, we can cause our anxiety, and cortisol, levels, to increase to less helpful levels when we negatively forecast the future and it is inevitable that some employees will be doing this if their resilience is impeded.

For instance, thoughts like:

  • What if I can’t remember how to do certain elements of my role?
  • What if I don’t get on with my colleagues anymore?
  • What if my alarm doesn’t go off?
  • What if the commute is difficult?
  • What if I can’t get childcare?
  • What if we can’t socially distance?
  • What if we go back into another lockdown and I have to adapt again?

It is therefore important for employers to recognise and acknowledge these concerns and to give people the opportunity to express them, and then to provide reassurance that everyone is feeling anxious to varying degrees and that everyone is in it together. 

 

In Summary

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a significant level of disruption to people’s working lives (and lives in general), and it has impacted people’s expectations around how they fulfil their role, how they balance work with their other responsibilities, as well as the impact our work life can have on our mental wellbeing, and vice versa.

This is an ideal time for employers and managers to engage with their people and to consider leadership and management practices and a workplace culture that genuinely supports the mental health of their people, so that they can contribute the best of themselves, aiding a successful return to the workplace and adding value to the organisation.

 

To discuss how we can support your managers to support your people, get in touch. 

 

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