The psychology of returning after lockdown
The psychological mindset of our team members will be as many and varied as the people we have working in our organisations. We need to treat everyone as an individual and be cautious of treating everyone the same or assuming they share the same ‘back to work’ experience as we do. It will be important to listen carefully to peoples lockdown experiences and then skilfully, openly question for how their experience has affected them.
Here are some perspectives on returning to work after a long absence that are useful in helping you support returners:
The reluctant returner
Mental health issues are often behind employees’ unwillingness to come back to work after a prolonged absence. These may have been pre-existing conditions or have developed during their lockdown experience. Some, sadly, may have suffered a bereavement or a significant period of ill-health of loved ones or been ill themselves.
What leaders can do to support ‘reluctant’ returners:
- Listen empathically to their concerns and issues.
- Understand that periods of isolation can bring about depression, anxiety and social unease for some individuals which may seem irrational to you.
- Be prepared to make flexible adjustments, including a phased return.
- Signpost team members to appropriate professional support if they are willing.
- Above all, be patient.
The eager returner
For some, the experience of working from home will have been stressful. The demands of children, homeschooling and other people in the household may have been challenging and inhibited the individual’s sense of achievement. For individuals, whose work provides a rich source of self-esteem, the inability to focus on work in a concentrated way may have been anxiety-provoking. They may be concerned about how they are being ‘rated’ by line managers, how their performance during lockdown has been viewed by peers and how they compare. They may be eager to get back to normal and re-instate the status quo.
What leaders can do to support ‘eager’ returners:
- Reassure them that they are valued and appreciated.
- Help them understand that there is no ‘normal’ for a lockdown return and together redefine what ‘normal’ might be moving forward for their role.
- Explore with them how this return might be a chance to change the status quo and take advantage of some opportunities that have been realised as a result of the disruption. Perhaps channel their eagerness into new ways of working.
- Support them in their enthusiasm for getting back to work and perhaps buddy them with reluctant returners if appropriate.
Preferred working from home returner
For some, the chance to work from home will have been a real gift. No commute, fewer guilt trips about not spending enough time with children, partners or pets.
The prospect of going back to overcommitted days, travelling and not enough time to take care of the home and personal priorities properly, might be daunting. Even if none of these apply, there may be some individuals who found themselves much more productive working from home and feel more satisfied with their work as a result.
What leaders can do to support ‘preferred working from home’ returners:
- Consider the possibility of working from home permanently. What policies and processes would need to be in place to make this equitable and possible?
- Explore with the individual how you can gain the commitment and reassurance you and the organisation need to make homeworking a realistic possibility in the long term.
- When home working is not feasible, be prepared to discuss how some of the individuals’ needs and priorities might be better met through flexible working.
- Carefully consider that you may lose some talent. Some team members will have discovered they are no longer prepared to make the sacrifices that working away from home involves. They may be already looking for an employer who can facilitate homeworking for them.
Lost my sense of purpose and direction returner
The scale and significance of this disruption may have had a profound impact on some individuals. They may have had enough time to re-evaluate their values and priorities. This experience may have been heightened by bereavement, the magnitude of the pandemic and the social and economic impact. As a result, their work may seem a lot less important than it did. Additionally, this mindset may apply to those who have been furloughed who may be wondering “do I still matter”, “will I be made redundant”, or “it’s so long since I was working, will everything have changed”?
What leaders can do to support ‘lost my sense of purpose and direction’ returners:
- Openly discuss how, together, you can make their work more meaningful.
- Directly connect the individual’s contribution to a more socially responsible or meaningful organisational purpose (assuming the organisation know what this is).
- Be open to suggestions of other career ambitions/roles within the organisation that appeal more to the individual's re-prioritised sensibilities.
- Reassure furloughed team members that they have a future if, in fact, they do.
- Use the return as a brilliant opportunity to re-invigorate commitment with role definition, objective setting and development conversations.
- Don’t make false promises. If there are to be layoffs a result of the disruption, make those decisions as quickly as possible. Avoid putting people through agonisingly protracted ‘at risk’ periods. Transparency, honesty and speed are the best policy as people can deal with the misery of losing their job and the sooner you can help them move on the better.
This category of returner may well apply to everyone! To a greater or lesser degree, everyone will be wondering what the future holds for them and the organisation. Society has been severely disrupted in an unprecedented way. An unknown future will be exciting for a few and severely anxiety-provoking for others and everything in between.
What leaders can do to support ‘anxious’ returners:
- Make yourself vulnerable, share your concerns and experiences. This will show courage and real empathy with team members and reassure them that you understand what they are going through.
- Communicate, in fact, over-communicate, preferably face to face if you can, by newsletter, personal emails, texts, social media and even old-fashioned letters. Share your plans. If don’t have any plans yet, tell them what you are doing to secure the future in terms of the planning process.
- Read our blog on ‘8 coaching questions to help you build the future after lockdown’ to help begin the planning process.
- Share widely any opportunities for change, development or growth that have come out of the disruption.