Returning to work after lockdown

Similar to most of us, I have spent the past three months focusing on changing my routine and finding new hobbies and occupations to adapt to the rise of the pandemic, coronavirus. One of the main parts of my life that has changed has been my employment. As for many of us, the main change has been moving from working in the office full time, to now working from home five days per week and my face to face client contact reducing immensely. 

The time has gone so quickly and in response to my work not slowing down, I have adapted so quickly that this has become my new normal. Now that I find myself surrounded by news headlines about life beginning to return to normal and my coworkers and managers talking about returning to the office, I find myself thinking: is it supposed to be simple to go back to how things were just three months ago? Are we going to be expected to return to our previous routines and habits as if the past three months haven’t happened? I have spent so much of this time working on my mental health and adapting to this new environment, what impact is going back to work full time in the office going to have on my mental health and how can I manage my mental health during this time?

Here are some of my thoughts and ideas I have to manage this transition…

Sleep habits

My sleep routine has been impacted immensely over this time. There were a lot of days where I tried to set my alarm for 6:30 as I normally would when I used to go into the office, but because I didn’t start work until 2 hours later, I could never find the motivation to get up. I had no goal and this resulted in often waking up, washing my face and brushing my teeth, and moving from my bedroom, to my bathroom next door, to the office next door and starting work, all in the space of sometimes 20 minutes. It is definitely safe to say my usual sleep routine has been impacted significantly.

Gradually returning to an activity after not completing this for prolonged periods of time can lead to healthy habits and sustainable solutions. Over the next few weeks, prior to physically returning to the office, begin gradually waking up early and finding activities to do before you start work that replicate your daily work routine. For example, wake up at the time you would wake up for work, go for a walk, do some stretching, exercise or journaling, have a shower and complete your grooming activities, make a coffee and some breakfast. If your normal work routine includes a significant amount less than what I listed, that’s of course okay. Your routine is entirely independent to you. The whole purpose is to replicate your own personal work routine and gradually increase the days, starting with 2, then increase to 3, 4, 5, at a pace that feels comfortable for you and depending on how much time you have. Fortnightly increases are generally a good guide, however adapt it to yourself. 

Returning to face to face interaction and socialising

We have spent so many weeks in isolation and adapted our communication methods with humans entirely. As an introvert, in any normal situation I find it difficult enough to develop and exercise my social skills, let alone returning to constant face to face interaction after weeks of not seeing anyone face to face. It will be difficult and that’s okay.

In these situations, I think it is important to go back to basics and trust your instincts. In respect to your coworkers, remember that everyone has been in a similar situation these past few months, I think in the midst of all the darkness surrounding this pandemic, one beautiful thing to come out of it is that every single person has gone through it simultaneously, which can feel very unifying from some perspectives. Remember this but don’t let it discredit your own experience or your own feelings. 

In regards to more formal face to face interactions, Where possible, prepare for meetings, assessments or interactions so that you feel confident going into the situation and you can refer to notes if you need to. Take three big deep breaths in and three breaths out before situations. Tell yourself five things that you are proud of yourself for to mentally prepare yourself for the situation. 

Finally, remember that it is perfectly normal to feel quite emotionally exhausted and drained after these interactions. Use strategies that work for you to manage this exhaustion, including self care tasks that will allow your mind and body to rest and recharge your batteries.

Daily structure

Similar to my sleeping schedule, my overall daily routine has changed significantly throughout this period, and to a large extent I really believe it needed to as for a vast majority of the quarantine period I have been in survival mode. With restrictions gradually starting to ease, and some of my pre-pandemic occupations becoming attainable again, I am beginning to find the motivation to start readapting my daily routine back to how it will be when I do have to return to the office full time.

Beginning to structure your days to replicate how they will look like when you are back in the office (or other working environment) can help to ease the transition when you do go back. Taking into consideration the sleeping and morning routine mentioned above, try expanding this to other aspects of your day. Take breaks (morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, etc.), take a lunchtime walk if you would usually do this, set time blocks for when you are going to only focus on work and not spend time on your phone, exercise if and when you would normally do this. Adapt this to your daily routine, but by beginning to gradually implement these aspects back into your routine now, it can help to ease the transition.

Be patient!

With all of the above in mind, please remember to be patient with yourself. Everything we have gone through these past few months has been really intense and unlike anything society has ever experienced. Things have changed and not only personally, but as a society, we will all take a long time to reintegrate not only back into the workforce, but back into some sense of “normality,” and there may likely be things that don’t go back to how they used to be. Remember to be flexible and that even if you do everything perfectly to prepare for transitioning to work, it won’t be easy and there will likely be barriers. Do what you can to prepare, but also trust yourself that you are more than capable of managing the obstacles that you will face during this transition.

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