Will yearned-for freedoms be replaced by 'the anxiety of normality'?

14 May 2021

If your year planner had a great big marker pen circle around Monday 12 April and the reopening of outdoor pubs, non-essential shops, gyms and (most importantly for many of us, hairdressers), then you're probably not alone. You may have another circle around 17 May (international travel, possibly) and the big one, 21 June and the lifting of most restrictions.

The success of the long 2021 lockdown, combined with the speed of the UK's rollout of Covid-19 vaccines, has raised hopes that reopening will be, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson has put it, "irrevocable". Even if things have become a little bumpier in recent weeks with surging infection rates Worldwide, vaccine capacity shortages and yet more questions over the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, the hope is that the worst may yet be behind us, even if infection rates do rise once more.

However, just as serious questions remain about the chances of foreign getaways actually happening this summer, so there are practical questions that go beyond health and safety and infection control around any possible return to physical working in the coming months.

With the government's guidance at the moment still "work from home if you can" much of the debate around when or how returning to physical working will take place has yet to happen. Some employers, such as PwC, have already indicated they will move to a more permanent hybrid model where employees are split between home and physical offices.

At the same time, there will undoubtedly be pressure to get people back on to our public transport infrastructure, back into our city centres and back into offices. Indeed, Johnson has been coming under pressure from some MPs to lift or relax home-working restrictions, chancellor Rishi Sunak has made it clear he'd like people to return, and Johnson himself has indicated he would like to see a return to workplaces happen from June.

For employers, just as we saw last summer when workplaces were encouraged to reopen for a period, managing the return-to-work process, bringing employees out of their home offices and back into physical workspaces, is unlikely to be straightforward.

Employers will need to be reassuring employees that physical offices are safe and Covid secure. It will be important to ensure correct protocols are in place, communicated and enforced around testing, mask wearing and social distancing, for example.

Yet, for employees who have been able to work from home for the majority of the pandemic, there is another element to all this, what we might perhaps call 'the anxiety of normality'.

There may be anxieties to manage around the first time you’re expected to return to public transport, to potentially crowded city centres, even just to gather in a meeting room.

There may be challenges around managing 'presenteeism' – will our attitudes to and expectations around that colleague who has dragged themselves into work to sit coughing at their desk need to change post pandemic?

Here are four things for employees to consider.

1. Accept you may feel anxiety

It is important to accept that life is changing (hopefully for the better) yet still challenging at the moment. One important part of managing any anxieties associated with these changes is acknowledging that, while you can't change the wider picture, you may be able to control some aspects of how they will affect your own life.

So, yes, you may now need to get on a bus, train or tube for work. The first few times are likely to feel stressful, but if you can take the transition slow and steady it may help.

Perhaps you can ask if you can stagger your travel outside of rush-hour times, at least initially? Are there other options that might work, for example, such as cycling to work or even driving in the beginning?

2. Recognise your anxiety and fear are normal

We've just been through a year of the biggest public health crisis in living memory, so it's OK to still be feeling a bit anxious about things; recognise that emerging from the 'safety' of the home office is going to be potentially a big transition and adjustment, especially at first.

Perhaps talk about it with friends, colleagues or your manager. Your manager, for example, may be able to help in terms of providing reassurance about what changes or protocols have been made to the office set-up to make it safer.

If you're feeling severe anxiety, your manager may also be able to help with signposting to mental health support, such as mental health first aid, apps, an employee assistance programme or even a referral to occupational health, if appropriate.

3. Don't be afraid to signal your boundaries

If you're back in the workplace but are feeling uncomfortable about a situation - perhaps a meeting taking place in a poorly ventilated office or being asked to step into a crowded lift, for example - don't be afraid to say something.

Your ability to do this may depend on your situation or role and the relationships with your colleagues but most managers will, hopefully, be looking to provide reassurance to employees who are feeling their way back and so may be receptive to suggestions.

It may also often be a case of just flagging up forgetfulness, for example a colleague who has forgotten to leave the meeting room doors open for ventilation.

It goes without saying, too, that it may take time for some people to feel comfortable with the idea of going for lunch with colleagues in a café or to a bar or pub after work, even if everyone is pleased to be back together.

So, don't push it if you're the one doing the asking or, equally, don't be afraid to say, 'sorry I'm not comfortable with doing that, yet'. Everyone is learning, or relearning, these things, and there needs to be recognition that this transition will take time.

4. Appreciate coughs and sniffles in the office may now be less OK

Chances are there will need to be big reset over 'presenteeism' or at least our attitudes to dragging ourselves into the workplace while sick, especially as we move into the autumn and winter. The prospect of sitting next to someone coughing and spluttering over their keyboard was unpleasant enough pre Covid but may become even more unacceptable post pandemic.

The fact home working has become so 'normal', and working may be more hybrid, may mean this becomes less of an issue anyway - if people are feeling under the weather, they just revert to the home office set-up for a few days.

It may also be a question of you recognising that hauling yourself into work while unwell may no longer be acceptable, or as accepted as it once was, however indispensable you may feel you are.

Again, the fact the alternative of home working is now available for so many of us may mean this is a change that is much easier to make than it would have been before.

About the author

Nic Paton is one of the country's foremost journalists on workplace health, safety and wellbeing, and is editor of Occupational Health & Wellbeing magazine. He also regularly writes on the health and employee benefits and health insurance markets.