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Returning to the workplace – or starting again?

May 7, 2021

With the possibility of an imminent ‘return to work’ making headlines, Lydia Hartland-Rowe reflects on ways to navigate this uncertain period with mental health in mind.

Earlier this week I was walking to work, and thinking about the upcoming ‘Mental Health Awareness Week‘. What I really felt preoccupied with was how strange it felt to be returning to a work environment that is so very different than it was a year ago – hoping I might see a few friendly, familiar faces in a building that used to be bursting at the seams, wondering how I would manage to find a decent office chair to use when my own had been helpfully allowed to go home with me, whether I had remembered to bring the various bits of tech needed to make sure I could do the remote work I would still be doing, even though from my office base… And I was also thinking about a walking competition a colleague had set up a year ago, with a league table to see who racked up the most steps in a week, and how much I had enjoyed taking longer and longer routes to and from home in the spirit of friendly competition, and seeing colleagues do the same – and wondering how we would regain a sense of community and connectedness in the middle of so much change and adjustment.

Just when I had got myself feeling really pessimistic about the challenges of the current climate, and a bit unsettled by not starting the day in the now familiar ‘home-working’ base I also use, I caught sight of a tiny, bright little flower growing where it had no reason to be flourishing, and every reason to be discouraged. It made me think about how varied our relationships to our environment are, and how important it is to bear in mind that what might feel apparently easy and straight-forward for one person might be really difficult for someone else to manage – and the other way round.

The working environment can be one where we can get enough of what we need in order to flourish and grow, and be as psychologically healthy as possible, or an environment that doesn’t create the conditions for mental wellbeing to be sustained. As organisations start to work on the issues of what the ‘return to work’ looks like (actually, a return to the workplace, we didn’t stop working…), this is an opportunity to really think about how to set and maintain that balance – and what can get in the way.

Internal and external worlds

There is a link here with ‘Mental Health Awareness Week‘. Mental health awareness in the workplace might mean, first of all, being more aware of what is needed in your particular organisation to create conditions that promote health – for your particular workplace, doing your particular work, with its particular challenges. The ‘external world’ of the workplace has a connection with our ‘internal world’, so the way the world of work is organised and how it functions has an impact on how we feel in that structure. It connects, somewhere, with some really fundamental feelings about who we feel we are, how valued we feel, how capable, how able to keep growing and developing. And just like the natural world, where we see endless variety and difference, everybody’s ‘internal world’ is different, no matter how much experience in the ‘external world’ is shared. With that glorious human variety, it’s impossible for any workplace to make sure that everybody’s particular experience is always optimal – but it is possible to remember that the structures and processes that we create within the workplace can’t always be guaranteed to have the same effect on everybody.

The return to the workplace is both a real opportunity to create more variety and flexibility in the ways we work – and it is also a change, which always means that something else has to be left behind. Even really welcome developments in our lives mean having to let something else go, and that may be particularly challenging at a time when there has been so much loss, and when, for many businesses and organisations, there may be more loss to come, whether through financial strain or the restructuring of roles that may come with new ways of working.   

Returning to the workplace

So, how can organisations work through this uncertain period with mental health in mind?

Be as clear as possible about what is happening – even when it isn’t clear or isn’t good news!

Managers can often feel pulled to try and create a narrative that suggests everything is going according to plan, which is often at odds with the experience of those they manage. Human beings are more able to make sense of experiences and stories about their experiences that fit together – even if the story is not the one they want to hear. So if you can bite the bullet and be open about what isn’t yet in place, or might not yet work, this is actually, in the long term, more likely to engender trust and to help people to feel that what they are experiencing and what they are being told are part of the same reality.

Recognise that one person’s isolation from home-working is someone else’s opportunity to be more focussed.

This doesn’t mean that everybody will be able always to work in the way they most prefer, but it might mean that the language about the balance of work between home and office needs to reflect both opportunity and loss.

Be ready for concerns or frustrations about inequity – who does and doesn’t have genuine flexibility?

We know this is already live and kicking in many organisations and in society as a whole, with some kinds of businesses or occupations having no choice about whether or not to be ‘in the workplace’, and with people from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups over-represented in those with less choice. It will be really important to hear these concerns as they arise, and at the very least to acknowledge inequity while you work to take action to change what can be changed.

Make use of the time spent together in the same physical environment just to connect and develop working relationships.

Social connection is central to psychological health, and the impacts of the past year’s fragmented experiences of the workplace are still emerging. Time sharing a coffee, going for a short walk, watering the plants together is all part of the work of mending old connections and developing new ones in the changed workplace.

Be ready to learn from what doesn’t work the first time – openly.

Of course it can be hard, especially for organisations with very large and complex infrastructures, to change and adapt once a course of action has been planned, but a key part of psychological resilience is the capacity to learn from mistakes – an organisation that signals this to staff can provide encouragement, confidence and strength for individuals to build on.

Finally, be ready to notice the tiny developments that might get going even in what feels like an unpromising environment. Like the little flower I mentioned, they might have been a bit hidden during a hard and cold year but be ready to emerge and be appreciated. Listening out for new ideas, suggestions, and ways of approaching the next period of work could provide energy and encouragement for the weeks and months ahead.   

Are you working towards wellbeing?

If you’re interested in exploring ways to support your own and others’ mental health and wellbeing, why not take a look at our brand new ‘Working Towards Wellbeing’ online courses, which explore trauma, anxiety and responses to change and uncertainty in the workplace?

Each course been developed under the guidance of Add | Wellbeing experts Lydia Hartland-Rowe and Angela Bagum, and can be undertaken independently or as part of a course bundle:

To discuss group bookings for your team or organisation, please get in touch with us by emailing

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