Going back to work post lockdown can feel greatly challenging. There’s a tendency to cling to the familiar to feel safe and secure. Change can feel threatening but there are things that we can do to feel more in control and connected.
Whilst the more extrovert among us may be excited at the prospect of returning to work and re-engaging with an audience, others may well dread it for that very reason! Just the act of interacting with gregarious colleagues can be draining and anxiety provoking for those with more introvert tendencies.
Considering this, rather than worrying about what might happen, aim to discover how to ringfence yourself and reduce the risk to your mental health and emotional wellbeing. Write a personal risk assessment and find solutions for your situation. Make a list of some of the things you are in control of. Have a look at some of my suggestions below.
Tell your line manager/supervisor/boss that you’re struggling with an aspect of the return to work. If you find it difficult to verbalise, write a private and confidential email outlining your concerns. When possible, suggest one or two solutions to the problem, such as split working from home/office, changing hours or asking for clarity on the troubling issue. This way you take both the problem and the solution to your boss, who may also be struggling.
Your body will give you very clear signals of discomfort and distress if you tune in and listen. A minimum of five-minute quiet time each day can be enough to pick up on a tightened chest, or a churning stomach. Feelings of heaviness, constriction are not good signs. Pay attention and aim to address the issue causing these problems, talk them through with a trusted friend, colleague or engage a therapist or coach.
You can’t fix other people’s stuff so don’t even try! What you can do is offer people time and space to listen. It’s one of the kindest gifts we can give. Even identical twins suffering the same loss will experience bereavement differently, so we should never presume to know what someone is feeling or when. It’s much easier to ask them, 'how are you?' and then listen. You may pick up the signal immediately that they do not want to talk about it or maybe if you stay quiet for just that tiny bit longer, they will share something with you.
Prepare yourself to be uncomfortably comfortable in the face of emotion. People who you least expect to be emotional may break down and cry in your presence. Be with them, hold the space for them and resist the temptation to hand them tissues, put an arm around them or placate them with platitudes. They are more likely to benefit and recover quickly if you don’t react in this way. That’s empathy and compassion, and can help them enormously.
Aim for balance and work out how you can achieve that. What do you need to re-energise? Do you need to stop and give yourself a short break to move around? Are you the type of person who needs to eat a little and often to keep your energy high? Are you sipping any water regularly? Is your head feeling hot? Make a list of resources you need to keep with you to help you feel balanced and in control.
'What do I want? What do I need to feel more balanced now?' Listen to your response. That’s your prescription, your wisdom so why not take your own advice!
Many people will be returning to a backlog of work. Since multi-tasking has been debunked, aim to spend longer at the outset to create a clear plan of action. Prioritising tasks with a simple A-B-C-D method can quickly provide order. This will give you a more realistic view of your workload and a greater sense of control. You will also be in a better position to manage your expectations and communicate your position to colleagues or staff.
Once you have a schedule of work in place, aim to set small realistic goals. If in your planning phase you can work out roughly how long each task will take, block out that time in your diary/calendar. This keeps goals realistic, and you can also schedule in short breaks, to stand up and stretch, have a comfort break or a drink.
Steps 6 and 7 offer you an opportunity to recognise your worth, all that you have achieved and validate your efforts. This way you’re not waiting around for someone else to pat you on the back and say 'well done'. You can do it for yourself and reward your good behaviour with a treat: a luxurious bath, a walk with a friend or carving out some time to read a book.
Practice, and I mean out loud, saying a good, clear 'no'. You can be pleasant but firm when you say no. 'No, I already have more than I can realistically handle. No, I simply do not have the available time. No, it’s not my responsibility, I cannot take that on.' Get used to that word in your mouth. I often have clients’ practice saying no in front of a mirror in as many different tones and volumes as possible. Add to this good body language, such as a firm hand extended away from your chest with a big 'no' should you need to communicate your position more clearly.
You’re either itching to get back out with friends and family or feeling the need to connect slowly. Firstly, your business is to know what you want and need. Secondly, negotiate with yourself to establish what feels right and manageable for you. Thirdly, practice out loud explaining to your friends and family how you need to proceed and see how you can arrive at a workable compromise between their expectations and yours.
Be your own cheerleader. Just be kind and loving to yourself. You will get the best from yourself by being supportive and gently encouraging. Watch out for the inner critic, sack your 'judge' and pump up the volume on your balanced assertive adult self! There is no right way to do this, only the way that is right for you, so aim to honour and respect your needs and keep your communication honest clear and consistent.
How can we handle the stress of not having control? In this video, I explain Stephen Covey’s Circle of Influence and Circle of Control, a tool that facilitates the discovery of personal ways to feel empowered. This might be something as simple as learning a gentle breathing technique to quell a rising panic and regain self-control.
Acceptance may be a better state to aim for than a sense of certainty because now more than ever things are in a state of flux and futures uncertain. Yet the fact remains, that people like to be in control but there is so much in life that we have no control over and the sooner we accept, become flexible and adapt, the less stressful life will be.
If you feel you could use some support to manage stress and acceptance, talking to a psychotherapist could provide invaluable help. Try UKCP’s Find a Therapist for someone local to you who can offer support.