Return to the office: It won’t be business as usual for anxious staff

The pandemic has affected mental health and many employees will need support

With a significant proportion of Irish workplaces expected to reopen by September, many organisations are already well down the road of planning what the return will look like.

From a logistics perspective, there are obvious things to do, such as reconfiguring office space or implementing staggered rosters. But the mental health pressures of returning also need to be managed. And as the pandemic was virgin territory, there is no blueprint for how to do it.

"Normally we would look at the research as a starting point for best practice. This time we have no basis for comparison," says Finian Buckley, professor of work and organisational psychology at DCU business school. "We've had situations like the Zika virus, but that was different because it affected a much smaller group, not the whole of society.

“We don’t have a rule book for this, so companies need to think carefully about going back because it is going to be a tricky transition.”


Buckley says that, while some employees will navigate the return without difficulty, others will find it a stressful time. Extroverts, who typically take their energy from social interactions, are really looking forward to being with others again, whereas those who are content in their own company may feel less enthusiastic because they find interactions more draining.

“At the most basic level it’s 14 months since most of us have been in the office,” says Buckley. “We are all facing a relearning process, especially around personal boundaries, with no handshakes, no hugs and strong feelings around ‘don’t invade my space’ – so, big changes in behavioural interaction.

“There needs to be a transition phase that eases people back into the 9-5 routine,” he adds.

“There is no ‘right’ way to do this but what’s definitely not a good idea is to make an announcement that the business will open on such and such a date and everyone is expected to turn up as if nothing has happened. The return needs to be reflected on and it needs to be thoughtful.”

Work-life balance

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development says the resilience of all employees has been seriously challenged by the pandemic. Employers need to step up with supports for those experiencing reintegration difficulties and poor mental health as a result of Covid-19.

“Measures will need to range from supporting employees to regain an effective work-life balance and addressing fears about returning to work, right through to support for severe mental health conditions,” it says.

In broad terms the pandemic was particularly hard on two groups: older people who were isolated and desperately missed their families; and younger folk whose lives revolved around their external social networks.

Those in the middle naturally missed the interaction as well, but they appeared to cope better with the lockdowns and are the group most likely to want to continue working from home, at least some of the time, when things return to normal.

“There are very clear preferences emerging related to age, and the younger people can’t wait to get back; older people less so,” says Buckley. “I have a student who is tracking patterns of engagement and burn-out in the 20-30 age group and, while they adapted initially because they had no choice, they have now reached a point where their motivation and engagement levels have dropped dramatically and they are almost salivating at the prospect of interacting with their peers again.”

One consequence of the pandemic is that there are now young people in the workforce who are more than a year into a job and have never been into the office or met their boss or co-workers. Equally, there is a cohort that changed job over the past 12 months who will be meeting their teams or colleagues for the first time. For some within both groups, this may well be a daunting prospect.

Flexible working

With clear generational preferences now being expressed, employers need to do their homework to understand what employees want while also being clear about what their business can tolerate around phased returns or flexible working.

“It’s different for different sectors,” says Buckley. “Some businesses have seen productivity improve during remote working because people aren’t getting interrupted and they have a lot more autonomy, which is key to intrinsic motivation. Others, such as those in the creative industries, have suffered because you don’t get the same brain-storming spark when people are not together.”

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (which provides workshop materials for briefing sessions on mental health and wellbeing for managers) says employers need to pay particular attention to supporting those still working under pressure in essential and front-line roles while those returning to the workplace in general may need re-induction to help them feel reconnected and engaged.

While organisations will have to develop a transition plan that suits them, Buckley says it will be important to go the extra mile to reassure employees about what has been done to create a safe working environment and to familiarise them with any changes and supports available.

“Communication is key to creating a sense of cohesion for when the workforce returns,” he says. “This means line managers talking more frequently to individuals or teams, CEOs holding more frequent town halls and senior managers being more visible in the run-up to the return.”