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Preparing for Re-Entry to the Workplace

Going back to work will require compassion, planning, and care.

Key points

  • Vaccines and diminishing COVID cases have many thinking about re-entry to their lives and work.
  • There have been real health impacts from the past 14-plus months, which should not be ignored.
  • Smart organizations will take a thoughtful approach to re-entry and ensure that the needed structures and support systems are in place.
 Alex Kotliarskyi/Unsplash
Room full of people working at desks.
Source: Alex Kotliarskyi/Unsplash

As summer approaches and data reports diminishing COVID cases, many of us are starting to ask: What does re-entry look like? What does it mean to come back from a pandemic, to return to some sense of normalcy in our lives, and for many who have been navigating work from home realities for fourteen-plus months, what does it mean to go back to the office?

I must confess, I’m ready. I’m ready to get back to the routine. And, even for this die-hard introvert, I’m ready to be around people again. But what I worry most about is how we navigate this return, and do so in a compassionate and thoughtful way. With all due respect to Adam Grant, people aren’t just languishing. People are burned out. Burned out from working too much, burned out from carrying the trauma of a global pandemic, burned out from carrying the trauma of so much harm to Black and Asian and LGBTQ colleagues, friends, and neighbors. This trauma is not just going to go away or be turned off once we go back to the office. So how, exactly, do we go back to work?

14-Plus Months of Trauma

The reality is our bodies and our minds aren’t meant to sustain this level of trauma. And, while the very real impacts of sustained trauma may be individual, ranging from exhaustion and sadness to dissociation and depression, they should not be ignored or dismissed by organizations seeking to bring people back to work. Consider the individual who has spent the past fourteen months worrying over potential job loss, taking care of homebound kids and elderly parents, bombarded by a constant news cycle of loss and death seemingly without end. They may have lost sleep, increased their alcohol consumption, or adopted other unhealthy habits simply to cope. What will it look like for this person to re-enter the office space and re-engage with their co-workers on a regular basis? What support might they need and what should the workplace be expected to provide for them to be successful in their role? These are questions that must be answered before we rush back to pre-COVID work routines.

Research from KFF Health has found that during the pandemic, roughly 40% of U.S. adults have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, up from 10% just a year before. Specific negative impacts of the pandemic include difficulty sleeping (36%), difficulty eating (32%), increases in alcohol consumption or substance abuse (12%), and worsening chronic conditions (12%), “due to worry and stress over the coronavirus.” Further, research has shown that “the mental health impact of disasters outlasts the physical impact.” A May 2020 study notes a growing epidemic of “deaths of despair,” which will lead to as many as 75,000 additional deaths from drug or alcohol misuse and suicide by 2029, if we do not take specific steps to address the very real well-being and mental health impacts being incurred at the moment.

In other words, the end of the pandemic, and re-entry into some semblance of “normal life” is not, in fact, the end. More worrisome, perhaps, is that in our rush to get back to “normal,” we may end up masking some of these impacts and get caught unaware when they do, inevitably, show up. This isn’t just a problem for individuals or mental health professionals or policymakers. This is a problem for organizations and society at large.

Burned Out and Rethinking Work

And it’s not just that we’ve all been faced with a health-related traumatic event, not to mention the numerous social injustice traumas of the past year-plus. Many, if not most of us, have been working at an incredibly high level, which is as unsustainable as the health and societal trauma we each carry. Recently, LinkedIn got a bit of buzz when it announced that it was giving its global (full-time) workforce a paid week off “to avoid burnout.” And, while it seems like the organization is thinking intentionally about what work will look like in a post-COVID world, it does beg the question: if you have to give everyone a week off to avoid burnout, is there a bigger issue going on? Perhaps the organization would do well to explore how to change the culture so that 16,000 people don’t need a week away just to survive their jobs.

Of course, there’s a lot still unknown about what post-pandemic work will look like. For every Jamie Dimon who says, “people don’t like commuting, but so what,” there are a whole bunch of employees thinking, perhaps it’s time to do something different. I think one of the great things to come out of the pandemic is that a lot of people are questioning what a meaningful life looks like, and how they want to intentionally build it from here on. And while we may not all get to go on extended vacations as a career path, without question there are a lot of options on the table, for many people. The organization or manager who demands their people return to the cubicle and the 8-5 (or more) grind as soon as possible for the optics of it will do so at their peril. Sure, there always will be people who are willing to sit at those desks. But turnover is expensive. And if 40% of the workforce really is thinking about leaving their jobs this year, then employers better get ready to spend a whole lot to replace them. Or, they need to give some careful consideration to the workplace culture they are creating.

Preparing for Re-Entry

So, what, then, should we do about re-entry? While this does not cover everything, here are a few tips for both managers and for those they manage.

For managers:

  • Give careful consideration to the support systems and structures your people need to be successful, both now and in the future. Anticipate some ongoing mental and emotional health crises, and recognize that your people are, in fact, whole people, with lives and concerns outside of work.
  • Take the time to be planful about re-entry. When the pandemic started, much like when a tornado blows through your house with little warning, organizations were forced to quickly pivot to survive. But now we have the opportunity to do things differently. Who really needs to be in the office on a daily basis, and why? How will you communicate your re-entry plans to your staff so they feel supported and engaged in the process?
  • Take this opportunity to think about the culture of your organization, and what it represents. If people are leaving their jobs in search of meaningful work, then how might you re-imagine work to give people a reason to stay? If you're bringing people back to the office because you don't like the optics, then your people are simply taking up space and certainly can do so elsewhere.

For individuals:

  • Take the time to identify what you need to be successful, at work and in your life, and ask for what you need. What you have done this past year and a half has been nothing short of heroic. But it’s not sustainable, mentally, physically, or emotionally. This is the time to think about what a healthy life means to you and how your work fits into that.
  • Seek out systems of support, both within and outside the workplace. Counseling is important and healthy. So are support groups and healthy lifestyle choices. Think about how you can start to build in these systems and practices, now, before re-entering the workplace, so that they will be habits once you get there.
  • Think about what a meaningful life looks like, for you, and how your work aligns with that vision. If it doesn't, what changes do you need to make, now or in the future, to get closer to that goal? Just because you want something doesn't mean that you will get it, but you can start to take steps towards creating a life of intention, compassion, and care for yourself, today.
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