Return to the Office: Six Tips To Protect Your Mental Health
By Doreen Marshall, Ph.D., AFSP Vice President of Mission Engagement
For many of us who work in offices, the pandemic changed our work lives dramatically. Many of us became telecommuters without much preparation; some of us lost our pre-pandemic jobs or had roles change due to layoffs and business closures; and others continued to work in offices with new rules (and lots of masks and hand sanitizer).
No two people have experienced the pandemic in exactly the same way, and accordingly, no two people are experiencing the transition back to the office in the same way. One friend of mine recently shared that she is not looking forward to the return to office life. Working from home has led her to rethink the value of her daily commute and the time it took away from her mornings, regular exercise routines and sleep. Another friend can’t wait to get back to the office, as she has had a hard time separating “work life” from “home life,” with it all occurring in the same space.
Living during a pandemic has required us to pivot, pivot, and pivot again. Many of us experienced losses and illness during this time, and the forced adaptation was often accompanied by confusion and concern. Many of us, both personally and professionally, are now recognizing that we may be headed into a season of more change.
No doubt about it: the pandemic changed us. We may be rethinking the wisdom of juggling multiple demands in an all-too-busy world, or we may have missed our usual fast pace. We may be entering a job search for the first time in a while, or rethinking our current career choice. Some are adapting to new rules about working from home and trying, with their employers, to figure out what the “new normal” will be for their workplace. And some of us are having to muster the daily energy to keep showing up, because we are experiencing burnout.
I personally am looking to the fall and a return to my work busyness with both cautious optimism and a weary soul, because I realize that COVID-19 seems to adapt and change faster than I do. I carry a lot of anxiety about future lockdowns: a stress-induced response to an unpredictable and seemingly dangerous year where much was lost, and I was forever changed.
So what, then, can we do to take care of our mental health as we forge our new work normal? How do we meet the changes to our work lives in a way that protects our mental health and empowers us to choose what is best for us?
- Focus on your work needs and avoid comparisons to others. It’s important to recognize that what you need at this time may be different from what others need. No perspective is greater or less valid than another, but rather a reflection of our individual need. Try not to judge yourself or others if they are looking forward to returning to the office (and you are not), or if they are reluctant to return (and you can’t wait to get back). It’s also okay if you’ve decided you have different work needs than pre-pandemic, and find yourself making big changes.
- Reconfigure your workspace in a way that is comforting to you and recognizes the change. If you are returning to the office, think about the physical space you will be working in and make it more welcoming to you. Self-care at work can also involves having things in our immediate space that soothe and anchor us in times of stress. Whether it’s adding photos of good memories, music, plants, inspirational art or other items that reflect who you are now, having things we are connected to around us can help ground us when challenges arise.
- Recognize that one of the gifts of the pandemic was the grace to be our imperfect selves. My son crashed my umpteenth Zoom call last week, and rather than guide him to an off-camera spot, I let him introduce himself. For many of us, the pandemic allowed us more room to breathe in our work and home lives. In general, we experienced more compassion and support from others when those imperfect moments occurred. Take that perspective into returning to work, and try to meet those occasions where things don’t go perfectly for yourself and others with grace, humor and compassion.
- Give voice to what you need to support your work and home life. Maybe you’ve figured out something about your relationship to work during the pandemic, and have a better sense of what you need from your work life. If that is the case, this is likely a good time to bring it up. It’s okay to say, “I’ve learned a lot about myself while working during the pandemic, and going forward, I would like to ________.”
- Plan for daily breaks. As you resume office time, make sure you plan time for daily breaks to help with your stress. A 15-minute walk, taking time to listen to a podcast or some music, eating lunch outside (and away from your desk), or a regular lunchtime workout or stretch can have a positive effect and help shift your mindset during stressful days. The important part is to build this in proactively (like a scheduled appointment on your calendar) and protect it at all costs. It’s the consistency of doing this on a regular basis that supports our mental health.
- Reach out for mental health support. It’s okay if you are struggling. If you find you are having a hard time transitioning back to the office, or to responsibilities in general, there is no shame in reaching out for help, especially from a mental health provider. You do not have to go it alone. You may have noticed changes in your sleeping or eating patterns during the pandemic, increased alcohol or substance use, felt less energy or no pleasure in usually pleasurable activities, or you may have had thoughts that life is not worth living. A mental health professional can help you navigate the transition, as well as help you figure out a way forward. Many employers have Employee Assistance Programs that can provide support (and are often underutilized). You can also locate a mental health professional here, or can receive immediate assistance if you are struggling, either through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 800 273-TALK (8255), or the Crisis Text Line, by texting TALK to 741741.
No two of us will navigate the transition back to work alike. But we can be sensitive to each other and support each other as we make positive changes to both our work lives and our overall well-being.
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