The rise in mental health issues during lockdown has been widely reported. I expect most of us have either experienced an issue ourselves or know of someone who has. An increase in anxiety, stress and depression is particularly prevalent and, given the circumstances, this is only to be expected.
To feel happy and confident, most of us require a measure of connection, control, and certainty. Lockdown took away or significantly reduced all three of these. It reduced our connectivity to friends and family. It took away some of our sense of control. There was the uncertainty of not knowing when the pandemic would end, or just how great the risk was as the situation kept changing.
No wonder many of us experienced mental health issues for the first time, or that those with historic vulnerabilities found themselves revisiting familiar experiences.
It is important to emphasise that this narrative, while recognisable, is not everyone’s story. We are all different and many people, after an initial hiatus, have thrived during lockdown. They have successfully overcome challenges, re-evaluated priorities, and established a previously elusive work-life balance.
So, while it is possible to generalise, it is also true that different people have had different experiences of lockdown and its associated impact on mental health. Therefore we can expect different experiences of the return. Many will relish the opportunity to return to ‘normal’, but many will also find the transition difficult for a whole variety of reasons.
The danger of expecting it to be a cakewalk
We might hope, even assume, that mental health problems will now go into decline as our world opens, and that the return to the office will be a cakewalk. In fact, the period of change we are now experiencing poses real, yet less expected, risks to mental health. Like a mountain climb, the return is often the more dangerous leg of the journey.
Lockdown has changed us. Our behaviours have altered, new neural pathways have been forged and new habits formed. Both our common conditions and our own individual experiences have impacted our way of thinking, feeling, and viewing the world around us.
As the lockdown lifts and and the world invites us to re-engage, we are called upon once more to adapt to a familiar array of restored activities. Rather more surprisingly, we may also have to adapt to the unexpected loss of some of what we like about the way things have become. Many of us will pick up where we left off, but it is unlikely to be a uniformly positive experience for all. For some the change back to ‘normal’ will be a real challenge.
It is important to be aware of this possibility for ourselves and others as we navigate the coming months. Recognising that this phase of the pandemic can cause mental health issues helps us guard against complacency and identify risks. Unrealistically optimistic expectations or an excessively stoical attitude can get in the way of this. As with Covid itself, ignorance is neither immunity nor remedy.
The danger of expecting it to be a nightmare
If we allow ourselves to inhabit the other end of the spectrum and expect the return to the office to be a nightmare, then it is possible that we may make this a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fears of an unpleasant commute and lost productivity. Worries about variants and compromised immunity. Misery about the disruption of newfound and cherished rhythms found in working from home. While these are genuine concerns, overemphasising them plays a part in making the experience more challenging than it might otherwise be.
Simply put, a pessimistic mentality, a tendency to catastrophise or to verbalise in extremes can undermine our wellbeing and prime us to find things more difficult. Rather unhelpfully, at the same time, this mindset diminishes our sense of confidence and capability to overcome the challenge we have exaggerated.
And therein lies the rub. How do we adequately acknowledge the very real mental health risks of returning to the office and keep ourselves from making them come true?
Finding the sweet spot
Finding the sweet spot is a balancing act. For some this is easy and for others harder but, for all, practice makes it a more stable and sustainable equilibrium. The key is to hold the paradox of our vulnerability and our strength. Be aware of the potential mental health issues that may arise and be confident in our ability to overcome them.
Tips for leaders
So, what are a few things leaders can do to develop a balanced stance in the sweet spot?
We could do a lot worse than give our employees connection, control, and certainty.
1. Everybody’s different
It is important to recognise that everybody’s different and will approach the return to the office in their own unique way. Our experience of the past year has shown that trusting people to manage themselves is not just possible but highly effective, as well as something individuals prize. If you can maintain trust and flexibility, employees will continue to find their way to optimise their approach. It might look different for everyone and that is probably a good thing.
2. Two sides of the same coin
It looks likely that professional and financial service firms have benefited from a one-off boost to output as longer working hours and more focused workers have delivered more than is possible once a commute and less efficient office routines are reintroduced. In the face of this, some leaders may be tempted to focus on performance and crack the whip. But prioritising performance over wellbeing, in anything but the short term, is a false dichotomy. They are two sides of the same coin. If we allow our people to attend to their wellbeing, then they perform. Performance without wellbeing is unsustainable. An emphasis on both wellbeing and performance will yield superior long-term outcomes for organisations and individuals.
3. Slow and steady wins the race
Change often fails because it is ‘too much, too soon, too fast’ for the individual or organisation to tolerate. Allowing people to find their own way to transition back to the office in their own time will likely yield better outcomes for all concerned. If we let people travel at their own pace and, very importantly, tell them that this is what we are going to do, then it will certainly pay dividends.
In summary, there are some unexpected mental health considerations as workers return to the office. It is important that we are vigilant and at the same time confident in our ability to mitigate these risks and support individuals if needed. Furthermore, allowing individuals to tailor their working habits, reconnect with their colleagues, and transition at their own pace may prove to be a key factor in attracting and retaining the best talent. The upside here is a competitive advantage in our people, the downside is that they do return to the office, just not ours.