The emotional impact of going back to work

When your organization or team returns to work after a long absence, the process has to be handled with care.

Written by Mind Tools for Business
Published 15 June 2021
The emotional impact of going back to work

Your people will experience a wide range of emotions during this new phase – and you'll need to manage them sensitively. Equally, you need to tune into your own emotions too, as you’ll need to practice self-care to help others do the same.

Understand what your people need

For many, returning will provide a fresh set of challenges – especially if they're worried about their well-being, or they disagree with the way the situation is being managed. Feelings such as anxiety, frustration and anger can come out, and the workplace may be a more volatile place than usual for a while.

Some people may just need time and space to let their feelings settle, while others may need additional support. So:

  • Give them the chance to talk through their feelings in private – this could be part of your one-on-ones, if you have them

  • Be sensitive to their needs and discuss the help that's available

  • But be prepared to remind them of their professional responsibilities, if necessary.


Be prepared for the tough stuff

 Prepare in advance for difficult conversations, particularly if you need to deliver bad news such as layoffs or budget cuts. Do the groundwork to help you anticipate and answer challenging questions, e.g. if you need to communicate a period of significant upheaval or change.
Taking steps to improve your own emotional intelligence will also make you better able to gauge the emotional 'temperature' of your team – and to decide on the best ways to look after their interests.


Five tips for reducing return-to-work stress

Every individual has a role to play in making the return to work a success. Regardless of your job title or position, here are six things that you can do to look after yourself, while smoothing the transition for others, too.

1. Recognize and manage your emotions

Give yourself time to adjust to being back at work. But also be willing to ask for help if you need it – and don't pretend that things are OK if they're not. Many of us share common reactions to change, so be prepared for them.

Keep an eye on your colleagues’ emotions too. If someone is behaving in a way that seems out of character, ask them how they’re doing. Let them know you’re there if they need you, but respect their boundaries and privacy too.

2. Be flexible

Many organizations have had to make radical changes in response to the pandemic, so it's important to be open-minded and flexible in order to adjust to short-term change quickly and calmly. Taking a flexible approach at work can include:

  • Offering to help out another team member if they’re snowed under

  • Volunteering to cover a colleague's work while they are on leave

  • When you come across a problem, offer up a variety of solutions that might fix it.

3. Express yourself

Talking to family, friends and co-workers will help you to think through any concerns about returning to work. Discuss your needs with your manager, but also talk to your allies in the workplace for ongoing support. And resist groupthink as this can prevent you from responding in the way that's right for you.
Similarly, check in with your team members and find out how each is feeling about coming back to work in whatever location and capacity, including remote working. Do what you can to offer them reassurance and help them overcome any barriers or concerns. If your team has questions you can’t answer, seek appropriate guidance, e.g. from your own manager, or HR department.

4. Watch your well-being

Focus on doing everything you can to stay healthy, energetic and positive. Eating, exercising and sleeping well are more important than ever. If there are wellbeing initiatives or resources available to you at work, be sure to make good use of them, and encourage team members to do the same.
But it’s also a time to be honest about workloads. If a project or request is beyond the scope of your capacity or expertise, don't be afraid to admit it. Remember that you can ask for help and choose to say no, particularly if people make excessive or unreasonable demands of you or your team.

5. Learn and grow

This is a time of great challenges. But it may also be a chance to reassess your priorities and to start living and working in positive new ways. Use any lessons you've learned about yourself during lockdown to your advantage and be alert to opportunities – particularly those that will equip you with new skills. Why not run a team session to encourage everyone to share their experiences and ideas with each other? And if you had some creative inspiration while you were away, maybe now's the time to turn your ideas into reality!

About the author

Mind Tools for Business

Mind Tools for Business

Mind Tools for Business brings accessible, on-demand performance tools and resources that empower colleagues to perform in today’s progressive workplaces. Helping them build happy and successful careers and to contribute positively to the success of organizations, the world over. At Mind Tools for Business, empowering people to thrive at work has been our passion for 25 years.

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