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Returning to work as lockdown eases

June 28, 2020

If you’ve been furloughed or working from home, your employer may have contacted you about going back to work, in line with the recent government advice. As well as putting safety arrangements in place to protect your physical health, the organisation you work for will be looking out for your mental health.

It’s natural to have mixed feelings about returning to work, however you’ve found the last few months. Some people will be desperate to get back to the ‘office’ – whether that’s in a building or outside – and raring to go! Some will be anxious, perhaps because they’re generally nervous about going out after getting used to staying at home. Others might be worried about their working environment, and whether they’ll be at risk of catching the virus. You might feel a bit down, deflated or demotivated, even if you enjoy your job. It’s different for everyone in this time of uncertainty.

Things are bound to feel strange, because none of us will be going back to a ‘normal’ situation. Desks and workstations will probably be arranged differently, there might be protective screens, hand-washing points, new signage, more stringent cleaning regimes and new rules and procedures you need to follow. If the return to work is being phased and you’re one of the first back, the workplace could feel a bit big and empty. It’s possible you won’t be taking breaks with your colleagues any more.

Here are some tips that may help you take care of your mental health as you think about going back to work.

Be self-aware.

Understanding how you’re feeling, and what’s at the root of it, will help you to get ready for the change and identify and address any potential issues. This might be affected by how you felt about work before lockdown! If you hated the commute or didn’t get on with your colleagues, your feelings of trepidation might be due to the thought of going back to that, rather than worries about the virus.

If you’re dreading the return, think about whether there’s any part of it you’re looking forward to, and why. This will help with getting perspective on the situation.

Be prepared.

Knowing what to expect in advance can be reassuring. Find out what safety measures have been put in place by your employer, and what you’re required to do. Try and visualise what your workplace might be like now. Packing your bag or filling up and cleaning the car could also help you to feel ready.

Be proactive.

Raise any questions or concerns with your manager or HR contact before you return to work. If you’re feeling particularly anxious, speak to them as soon as possible about how you’re feeling.

If there’s a reason going back to work will be difficult for you – for example, if you live with someone who’s shielding, or your children haven’t gone back to school yet – be clear about this, and about the problems you foresee.

Going to your manager with a possible solution is a good approach. Think about what you need, and suggest ideas that will make your return possible or less stressful. For instance, if you’re worried about getting the train at peak time your manager might be able to give you a car parking pass, or allow you to start and finish later. Other solutions to barriers or worries might include flexible hours, taking annual or unpaid leave, or building up your time in the office gradually.

Be assertive.

If you’re struggling to raise or express your concerns, practising how to be assertive might be useful.

Explain your viewpoint, then listen to your manager’s response. Let them know you understand they’re under pressure to keep the business afloat while meeting the needs of all their staff. Then explain how you feel and what you’re thinking, and clearly state what you would like to happen. You might want to ‘rehearse’ with a friend or family member beforehand!

Organisations do have a legal right to look after their employees’ health, including their mental health, so don’t be afraid to speak up. If you have a specific physical or mental health problem your employer might be required to make reasonable adjustments. The ACAS website, Citizens’ Advice or your union are all good places to look for guidance.

If you’re feeling especially anxious or down about returning to work, and it’s affecting your day-to-day life – for example, stopping you from sleeping, making it hard to concentrate when you’re working from home, or causing physical symptoms – it may be useful to consider cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This practical approach teaches you tips and tools to manage stressful situations and difficult emotions – and there’s an online option which enables you to access treatment quickly and at any time.

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