Getting your head around returning to the workplace

Mental health guide aims to tackle workers’ anxiety about office life and Covid

When the Covid-19 pandemic first emerged, people struggled to adapt to working from home – setting up ad hoc offices in kitchens and bedrooms, having Zoom calls with poor internet connections and lunching with house mates rather than colleagues.

But, now as we realise that we have to adapt to living with Covid-19, returning to workplaces will become the next new challenge.

"I'd say between 30 and 40 per cent of workers will return to offices in the next while, but many smaller companies won't be able to manage one-way systems and social distancing," says Peter Cosgrove, Future of Work expert.

You are more likely to be made redundant if you are not seen, you work remotely or on a shorter week

Cosgrove will partake in a public talk on Thursday, October 8th, organised by mental health support group Aware in advance of World Mental Health Day on October 10th. One of two so-called Wellness Sessions, the session will look at how to look after your mental health proactively in an evolving workplace (see to register).


Cosgrove says that while we have understandably been talking a lot about the health of the nation in relation to Covid-19, there will be big concerns about job losses over the next year.

“You are more likely to be made redundant if you are not seen, you work remotely or on a shorter week,” he says. And while many people have been saying how amazing it has been to work remotely, he believes there are employers in what he describes as “low trust culture” who don’t believe people are working hard enough if they can’t see what they are doing.

These types of managers are already causing stressful work lives for employees who are not back in their offices. But once these workers do return, there will be a whole new set of concerns about hygiene (cleanliness of desks, canteens, toilets and air ventilation systems) and communications (interacting safely during face-to-face meetings and in open-plan offices).

Financial Times columnist Pilita Clark says that getting people back to the office is tough but staying at home has its problems too. She says that most leaders will go back to the office and supports for those at home (if they existed at all) will diminish. Temperature checks and Covid-19 virus screening – as will be piloted at Trinity College Dublin – may become necessary to prevent outbreaks in workplaces and academic institutions accepting staff and students back on campus.

The national voluntary organisation Mental Health Ireland has teamed up with the national mental health stigma reduction partnership Sea Change to produce a guide to returning to work. A New Reality – Living with Covid-19 acknowledges that people will have had different experiences working remotely and some will be feeling a new anxiety about returning to work while others had mental health problems that may have been further exacerbated by the pandemic.

Many people will be dealing with varying senses of loss, due to the death of loved ones or even the loss of social connection with colleagues or loss of freedom. Yet, in spite of these losses – or because of them – people might react differently when back in the workplace.

Miffy Hoad, development officer with Mental Health Ireland for Cavan-Monaghan, helped develop the guide. She says people managing resource centres had particular concerns about reopening premises during the pandemic. “Many of these places are about reducing barriers for those who are vulnerable and in distress to come in so having to wear masks and put up Perspex makes it very difficult for everyone,” says Hoad.

Things will not be like they were before with fewer people in offices and less ability to connect with colleagues in canteens

Gina Delaney, development officer with Mental Health Ireland in the southeast, says being honest about your feelings about being back at work will also help others cope better. "Many people will also be worried about bringing the virus home to their families as well as bringing home stresses and anxieties from workplaces. It's important to get the right support, whether it's talking to a trusted colleague, a line manager or your GP," says Delaney.

The Mental Health Ireland/Sea Change guide advises managers to ask open-ended questions (how are you finding being back at work?) so people can vocalise how they are feeling about returning to their workplaces. Learning to smile with your eyes when wearing a face mask and using friendly body language – while observing social distancing – are other ways of connecting with kindness in these new circumstances.

Remember, it’s the real life opportunities to connect, communicate and co-operate that is at the heart of working in shared spaces to begin with.

Peter Cosgrove says that before people return to their workplaces, they should speak to others who have already returned. “Things will not be like they were before with fewer people in offices and less ability to connect with colleagues in canteens.” He advises people to return to work gradually so they can manage the change.

“Relationships with managers are more important than ever. It’s important to understand what’s expected of you as your performance objectives might be different from before. Also, if you or a family member has an underlying health condition and you feel the Covid-19 guidelines aren’t been adhered to, you need to be able to talk to your manager about it,” says Cosgrove. Companies that have employee assistant programmes offer employees access to external confidential counselling services for any personal or work-related issues.

Cosgrove also says it’s important not to idealise your experience of remote working, as it happened in exceptional circumstances. “It was a novelty working from home for most people and it was during lovely bright warm weather from April to September. It’s a different thing altogether working from home from November to February in an empty house when children are back at school.”

Tips on coping with going back into your workplace during a pandemic

1. Focus on what is inside your control, not on what you can't control.
2. Stick to a schedule where possible as routine helps reduce anxiety.
3. Make an extra effort if a colleague is feeling anxious or stressed.
4. Look at ways to stay connected with colleagues who aren't in the office, are working different shifts or in different locations.
5. Ask for help if you are struggling with how you are feeling or coping with work loads.

Read: Mental health: ‘It takes bravery to seek treatment’