Published: 20 May 2021. Written by: Marina Gask.
Concerned or anxious about returning to a ‘normal’ work routine? Take a look at our tips for going back with confidence.
Feeling weird and more than a bit worried about going back to a ‘normal’ work routine after the past year is totally natural. You may have been working from home the whole time, on furlough for some of it, freelancing from your spare room or even looking for work along the way. You may, of course, have also been going into your place of work every day.
Whatever the case, the post-lockdown work environment will be different to what we’ve all become used to, and the thought of a busy commute and being around a lot more people all day while you try to settle into a new routine may be giving you some anxious thoughts.
For some people, the end of lockdown can’t come soon enough, with almost 37 per cent looking forward to returning to normal life according to research by Anxiety UK, while just over 20 per cent are feeling anxious about returning to work. The good news, says Elaine Carnegie, founder of workplace wellbeing and mental health consultancy BeingWorks, is that most companies have irrevocably changed their attitude when it comes to the mental health of their workforce: ‘Self-care, compassion and kindness are not going to be brushed off in the boardroom any more and should now be part of every organisation’s core values,’ she says.
Checking in with our feelings as we are dealing with the challenges of post-lockdown work will be crucial, advises Carnegie. ‘Self-care doesn’t just happen, it’s a practice that needs to be repeated, which takes time, patience and perseverance. But it’s that habit that will help keep us mentally healthy as we move into the weeks and months ahead.’
Here is how to use self-care to cope with just some of the key things employees and employers are feeling anxious about:
Being face-to-face with colleagues again
After a year of socialising virtually, it’s understandable that we might feel awkward about seeing our work team in real life. ‘Easing of restrictions will be overwhelming for many of us and this is so normal. We’ve been through a collective trauma over the past year and it’s important to acknowledge that. Our resolve and resilience will definitely be depleted,’ says Carnegie. You may feel stressed and lost for words. You may wish to withdraw entirely.
‘Start with one-to-one meetings, building up to where you feel comfortable. And don’t judge yourself during or after you meet up with others,’ adds Carnegie. ‘It’s very likely they will be feeling a lot, too. It’s so important not to compare yourself to others and be mindful of that critical inner voice.’ Just like the first day of school or a completely new job, these feelings won’t last forever, but if they continue, talk it through with friends, family or your GP.
Apart from wearing a mask, how can you let people know that you still intend to keep your distance? ‘If someone gets too close, put your hand out and take a step back. Most people will not receive this in a confrontational way, but as a self-protection mechanism,’ says Carnegie.
Supporting your team when they need it
Being a leader in lockdown has been tough, too, and now you have to find the inner resources to support your team through re-entry into the new work-life structure. ‘Some [of your team] will be excited, some fearful, but the key thing to remember if a team member is resistant is that there may be more than laziness behind it – anxiety and social anxiety can play a part,’ says Carnegie.
People have to process the change as they transition into their new work life, so don’t expect them to ramp it up in a hurry. One study found that 37 per cent of Brits say that working from home has made them the most lethargic and tired they have ever been, while over a third (34 per cent) of UK workers have seen their workplace’s headcount decrease and their workload increase in the past 12 months. ‘Everyone will be different, so be curious about how they are feeling, making adjustments to put them at ease where possible. And plan some team-building activities so your staff can reconnect with the company’s values,’ advises Carnegie.
What to do if you’re feeling out of the loop
It’s been hard to bring our A game over the past few months, when the working day and structure has been so unusual. Interacting digitally has done the job and kept us on track, but it’s been hard to stay motivated all the time, so you may feel disconnected and out of the loop when it comes to work projects and strategies. Carnegie says: ‘Not feeling up to speed can be disconcerting. Arrange a meet-up with colleagues who bring out the best in you, so you can discuss ongoing projects and reconnect with your goals.’ Think about what excites you about the next few months to get remotivated and make sure you engage with your work network online and in real life. This will help get you back ‘in the zone’ mentally.
If you’re feeling anxious about commuting
How do you feel about crammed trains and buses? Research conducted by Roadmender Asphalt found that 65 per cent of Brits do not feel comfortable commuting to work via public transport any more, while a quarter of employees say that their commutes mean they are exhausted before they even start working.
Explore potential working patterns with your line manager and how best to accommodate your commute. ‘Do some research into the options for getting yourself into work,’ says Carnegie. ‘Try taking a less busy route and reducing the number of changes. If alternative modes of transport are preferable, look for options offered by your employer – for instance, are there additional car parking spaces?’ And be open with your boss/team about ‘blended’ working options (ie working three days in the office) so you can limit your commutes.
What to wear after a year in leggings
Hands up who’s been living in jogging bottoms or even pyjamas for the last few months? We’ve all got a bit more relaxed about workwear during lockdown. If you’re about to face colleagues again IRL, don’t leave giving your wardrobe a recce until the night before your return to the workplace. Lizzie Edwards, a personal stylist, image consultant and founder of the Elevate style membership community, says: ‘Instead of going into denial about what size you are now, try on your clothes and see what fits.’
Maybe a little reinvention is in order. ‘New glasses, a different look, a change of style – changing things up a little will help you feel positive about your return to work,’ adds Edwards. You might find you no longer want to wear your old work wardrobe, especially if you’ve been used to comfort. ‘Look for garments that are smart and structured but with stretch, that tread the line between who you were before and who you are now. Seeing yourself in different clothes will shift your mindset to “dressing for work”.’
Said yes to too many invites? Take a look at our expert tips on how to avoid post-lockdown social burnout.