Blog post

It’s not a simple shift back: tips on how to cope with the return to work

Given that social distancing and Covid restrictions have now come to an end, the University of Derby’s Academic Lead in Counselling, Psychotherapy and Psychology, Dr Yasuhiro Kotera, looks at the top tips for those who are returning to work.

By Yasuhiro Kotera - 19 July 2021

Background: A new way of working from home and its impacts

Since the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic, many employees have been forced to work from home. In the UK, this began in March 2020 (in our university, the decision was made just one day before a conference I had been preparing for and was due to attend. Unlike the normal way of working from home, which is by choice or agreement with one’s employer, the ‘Covid working from home’, for those who could do so, has been at the direction of government.

As my research identified, though Covid-19 relates to physical symptoms, its impact on our mental health has been substantial. Many employees experience higher levels of mental health difficulties such as depression and stress, resulting in more substance abuse and domestic violence. Accordingly, many new practices and concepts have been created, such as Zoom fatigue, and wellbeing meetings. These help people to have a good work life that is located at home. In our teaching for healthcare programmes, resilience-building exercises were found to be helpful by students who are registered professionals, some of whom are treating Covid-19 patients. Some of those good practices and key concepts will be maintained or discussed even after the pandemic.

As we have got the hang of working from home, the Covid situations in some countries, including the UK, have been getting better. Now organisations are planning the return to work, but this is not going to be a simple shift back to the pre-Covid time, because we are creatures of habits and familiarity.

We first need to break the habit that has been continuously programmed for a year and half, and rebuild a new one (though not from scratch). Even after you are back to your pre-Covid work settings, there will be some new procedures to be followed to prevent possible infections.

Our brain may be confused, (“This looks similar to the way it was, but is it different?”) leading to stress. Employees and organisations therefore need to carefully implement the return to work. 

Tips to help employees and employers

But what do we need to be careful about? What do we pay attention to? Here are some tips from the mental health perspective.

  1. Allow yourself to give self-care (even temporarily), because mental health has been paid attention to even more during Covid times, stigma around caring for one’s mental health seems to have lessened. As discussed before in the university blog and paper, de-stigmatisation of self-care seems to have progressed. Acknowledging that the change is accompanied by stress, in the workplace I recommend you slow down, and notice how you feel. Some of you may feel guilty to do so, but you can justify it by remembering that it is an unusual time. Employers can proactively offer self-care to maintain long-lasting wellbeing and productivity.
  2. Enjoy chit-chats with colleagues. My research identified that a sense of loneliness predicted poor mental health during Covid. We need to feel that we belong to something, and there are other people who share similar life difficulties and challenges. A sense of loneliness was accentuated during Covid, due to working alone remotely. Now you are back in the office, where your colleagues are. You don’t need to book a Zoom meeting to have a conversation. When you feel your focus is a bit off, stand up and go and talk to your colleagues.
  3. Be kind to yourself: No guilt, no self-criticism. My mental health research suggests that self-compassion andbeing kind towards oneself is really important to our mental health. Going back to your workplace, you may need more time to adjust than you initially thought, or you may encounter emotional breakdown from seemingly one tiny issue. We are all human, and we all make mistakes. Rather than feeling ashamed or disappointed, show some understanding towards yourself. If you don’t support yourself, who does? Your loved ones do, but without your understanding towards yourself, nothing can help. Locate your kind heart, and use it for yourself.

Returning to work may sound simple, but from the mental health perspective, it may not be the case. Employees and organisations need to be aware of that and implement this new transition carefully. The tips suggested above may be helpful for individuals and teams to be aware of in the coming months.

This article is based on a paper discussing my TV interview regarding the psychology of working from home.

About the author

Yasu Kotera smiling, sitting at a table in front of tea cups and a jug of water.

Yasuhiro Kotera
Former Academic Lead in Counselling, Psychotherapy and Psychology

Dr Kotera's teaching primarily focused on mental health and research modules including supervision at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.