Being mindful of mental health will go a long way to ensuring a more successful transition back to the office (Getty Images/SDI Productions)
After working from home for nearly 18 months, the idea of heading back to the office can bring up a lot of feelings. Whether this has been a time filled with additional daily stress or a period marked by enjoying a commute-free workday or something in-between, experts all agree the return to in-person work will have challenges no matter which lense you’re looking through.
“The return to the office is proving to be so much more complicated because work from home was basically a tech solution,” says Michael French, regional vice-president at Robert Half Canada. “But the return of the office is way more of a human solution.”
“The effects of the pandemic are probably going to be with us for some time,” says Liz Howarth, manager of workplace mental health at the Mental Health Commission of Canada. “There’s an increased fear among some people about being back out there. And that’s very normal when we’ve been isolated.”
The good news? You can help prepare yourself for the return to the workplace. Here’s how:
1. ACKNOWLEDGE THE SITUATION
From adjusting to new protocols or even mental health up and downs, people have learned to adapt to the continually changing pandemic situation, says Katy Kamkar, clinical psychologist for CAMH and assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. Preparing for a return to the office is one more hurdle.
“This is again, readjusting to a new structure and new routine,” she says. “A lot of the changes that people go through invite a range of emotions. But it’s also incredible the amount of strength and resilience that we have shown this last year.”
And it’s a normal reaction to have anxiety whenever we face uncertainty, says Kamkar. Being upfront about concerns, she says, and seeking help and support when needed, can help manage negative thoughts before they become overwhelming.
2. MANAGE EXPECTATIONS
Don’t plan on returning to your pre-pandemic office routine, says Horvath, but do plan for an adjustment period. “One of the major things is being prepared that we’re not going back to normal life,” she says.
Being realistic about the current situation—and what new office culture will be—helps approach the idea of change successfully. “Look forward to new routines and be mindful of what we need to do to care for our physical and mental health,” says Horvath.
Do be proactive, she adds, by eating well, getting enough sleep and exercising to help calm some of the stress being experienced.
3. FOCUS ON THE NOW
Focusing on current worries should be the objective, say Kamkar, as opposed to future worries, which are things that may or may not happen.
To ease some of the stress, she recommends looking to available information including employer updates on return-to-office timelines and in-office health protocols. When armed with knowledge, “we feel more empowered, we feel more resilient,” she says, “And really, resiliency is when we are able to optimize our resources, strength and support.”
4. CREATE A PLAN
Dr. Bill Howatt, president of Howatt HR, which focuses on workplace psychological health and safety, says worry management is about managing contingencies.
“Build a plan,” he says. “Structure how much you’re going to go to work. Maybe you can return to work gradually.” He also recommends thinking ahead to put carpooling plans in place, if there are concerns about public transportation, getting enough rest and planning your day to accommodate for work-life balance.
Also important is implementing a mental-fitness strategy that can be incorporated into a daily or weekly routine. This should be personalized to individual needs, Howatt says, whether that includes daily movement, meditation or a walk around the block to create inward focus and relaxation.
“It’s about ‘what am I going to do to charge my batteries to build my resiliency?’,” he says. “Mental fitness is your ability to build your resiliency to get ready for today or tomorrow, understanding that, ‘I have control over my happiness’ and being mindful that ‘I’m the one ultimately responsible for my own private victories that will create my happiness.’”
5. THINK POSITIVELY
Adverse thoughts have a way of developing in our minds, especially in times of stress. Kamkar recommends trying to recognize these thoughts before they manifest into something bigger.
“We know that our self-talk really matters,” she says. “Reassure yourself that we have done that [worked in the office] before the pandemic and we have been able to readjust to the changes of the pandemic, too.”
Perspective and mindset play an important role, says Horvath. And this starts at home. “We need to look at ‘how can I reduce the overall burden so that I can keep my stress levels down?’” she says, suggesting simple tasks such as organizing your wardrobe early and preparing lunch in advance to knock things off the to-do list.
FINDING SILVER LININGS
The good news is that these challenging times have also spurred some positive changes. Not only has the pandemic proven people can work remotely and from all over the globe, Howatt says, but it has shown that employees have more opportunities than they used to. “I think we’re going to be realizing that we have choices,” he says, adding that “brain health” will be where both employees and employers focus much effort.
Although experts agree this is a time of high stress, it is also one of great opportunity. “It’s probably going to be a once in a generational time to do a corporate reset on work-life balance,” says French. “There are lots of changes, hopefully a lot for the better, too.”
Find out why managing mental health in the workplace matters and learn stress management techniques to help cope during this uncontrollable time.
Also, see how some organizations are preparing to welcome their employees back into their workspaces and how CPAs have been faring working from home.