The psychologist’s guide to returning to work after lockdown

Although the UK currently remains in lockdown, planning and preparation should begin for businesses to manage the inevitable change that will take place when the coronavirus (Covid-19) lockdown is lifted.

There will be a number of potential concerns for those returning to work in the post-pandemic environment. Many people have been subjected to social isolation, confronted possible illness, and/or bereavement, and many will be experiencing financial problems. Some employees may be returning to work after having been furloughed during the lockdown.

There may also be relationship concerns for some, with couples spending more time together than usual, which can put an additional strain on their home life – resulting in possible break-ups, incidences of domestic violence, as well as increased divorce rates. Each of your employees’ home lives will be considerably different. It’s vital that employers support employees’ mental wellbeing and make it a priority.

Effects of social isolation

The social isolation experienced by many people during lockdown can have debilitating effects on their minds and bodies. These can include:

  • Social anxiety
  • Low morale
  • Change in working and behaviour patterns
  • Impact on communication
  • Low self-esteem
  • Reluctancy to return to an office environment
  • Problems integrating
  • with others
  • Low mood
  • Possible depression

As a result of social isolation, some individuals are less likely to deal with stressful situations. They may encounter problems in processing information, which can lead to difficulties in decision making. Memory storage and recall can be impacted, as anxiety and isolation take a physical toll on the brain’s circuitry by triggering high blood pressure and heart rates, stress hormones, and inflammation. This can make individuals more susceptible to illness, as the body responds differently to fighting viruses. Some may also face symptoms of PTSD.

Working from home can feel like an isolating experience, which can create additional issues, such as employees being less productive.

Losing confidence 

If you have furloughed employees for any length of time they will most likely be experiencing some anxiety or uncertainty. Employees who have been furloughed from their roles may lose confidence in the management or the business. This low morale can lead to inadequate job performance, counterproductive behaviour at work, and higher employee turnover. Individuals may also experience stress and burnout.

That’s why it is important that you are honest and transparent with your team, and that they understand the reasons behind your decision to implement a furlough.

As responsible employers, these are some of the concerns we should be prepared for in the post-lockdown period. There are a variety of implications for organisations and employees if these concerns are not acknowledged and supported.

Managing a smooth transition

An organisation’s culture, behaviour and values should be focused on their ability to support their workforce and clients, in order to manage a smooth transition back to the workplace with the appropriate strategies, tools and support systems in place.

It is imperative that planning begins now, so that organisations are ready to drive the change and tackle the challenges that will be faced – supporting and integrating employees smoothly into their roles, while being able to manage eventualities with utmost sensitivity. 

The culture change will cover all aspects – psychologically, emotionally, mentally and physically – for everyone from graduates to leaders; no one is excluded. There will be anger and frustration, all of which need to be confronted. What we know about change in models and practices needs to adapt, as this is a vastly different transition we are facing. 

As this health crisis was unforeseen and not in accordance with many organisations’ plans for 2020, strategies need to be re-thought and we need to focus on what is important – building morale and supporting the transition of returning to work. Redefining our principles for this moment and our business expectations.

The way forward

Training, support and flexibility are some of the ways forward – focused on different areas of mental, physical and emotional health. Also the provision of forums where people can express how they feel in a nurturing environment. 

One-to-one coaching can be helpful, as well as having access to a variety of information. Be prepared to accept that things will not be the same, as we have entered a new cycle.

The provision offered will enhance and accelerate productivity, reduce absenteeism, improve communication among team members and management, provide leadership tools, and support the change processes. As well as provide the necessary intervention required, due to the variety of implications that will be experienced by the knock-on effect of Covid-19.

Further reading:

Viraj Yadav is an executive coach and senior psychologist in the public and private sectors..

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