Jo Frape, OSH content developer at IOSH, grieves for the hustle and bustle of the pre-pandemic workplace and says employers will need to be sympathetic to the anxieties of those returning to work.
On 23 March 2020, I was directed to work from home. ‘Great,’ I thought: ‘much more flexibility!’ But as time wore on I found it grating, draining, challenging and stressful. I was completely unaware of the seriousness and consequences of Covid-19 when leaving the office, but as the days and weeks went by, the virus spread rapidly: it was destructive, it was daunting, and it was frightening.
Adapting to lockdown life entailed changing my home environment into a school, a workplace and a sanctuary. My routine now included home-schooling, home-working and managing all the other aspects of life. You now heard the term ‘new normal’ everywhere, but that meant very different things to different people.
July 2021 saw restrictions lifted: lockdown eased, and working lives changed again. Workplaces reopened and people started to trickle back to work. I was offered the opportunity to mix working at home and at the office, and I jumped at the chance to return to the office environment.
I thought the office would be the same as the day I left. Going to work used to be a constant part of my life that I really enjoyed, and I was desperately hoping it would be the same post-pandemic. I needed something in my life that was unchanged and free from any touch of COVID.
But it was immediately apparent that it wasn’t the ‘old normal’. The only thing that hadn’t changed was the structure of the building. I had a different place to sit, my old colleagues had mostly opted to work from home, and some had even given up their jobs. I felt even more isolated than when working from home. A once-thriving staffroom where I used to catch up with colleagues and eat lunch is now shut. A meeting space that once hosted quick catch-up meetings and a coffee is non-existent.
I now sit in a huge conference room, alone, talking to a big screen as all my colleagues work virtually. It was previously impossible to get a car parking space, but now I have the freedom of the car park. It’s no longer the place I left 16 months ago – it’s deserted and it’s isolating. I now feel a sense of grief for the colleagues I no longer see and the place I no longer know.
Talking about feelings and emotions is one of the ways I’ve come to terms with what is happening. Having conversations and being able to maintain an open and honest relationship with colleagues, albeit virtually, has helped me to adjust to this new way of living.
As more people are returning to work or the workplace, going back to the office or work environment can cause mental anguish – from feelings of anxiety of meeting people face to face to having to use public transport. I, for one, advocate that organisations consider how people are feeling and show compassion for individual circumstances. Ensuring people at work are supported is crucially important.
Jo Frape is an OSH content developer at IOSH