More than a year of living with the pandemic, those of us working from home, have traded our formal wear for pajamas, commute for couches and rigid office timings for elastic working hours.
While the work-from-home, work-from-office is still a bone of contention, businesses are now considering a return to the office and some have already made the transition.
Karthik, an engineer in Bengaluru, says going back to the office might bring with it some benefits like better work-life balance, clear boundaries, increased productivity and some social life.
But not every employee is eager to return to the office.
Ashish, who lives 27 km away from his workplace, is not happy about the commute, the traffic and the loss of personal time. He also fears getting infected with the virus and losing out on the benefits like flexible working hours.
Whether it's a complete return to the workplace or a hybrid model, the switch needs a solid return-to-work strategy.
Ensure Health & Safety Protocols Are in Place
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how quickly the virus can spread and how elusive the outbreaks can be even with extreme measures. The physical safety of the employees must be the top-most priority of any organisation.
"Ensure and tell the employees what kind of safety measures have been taken, so that they don't have to do this on their own," explains Dr Ruksheda Syeda, a psychiatrist from Mumbai.
This gives them peace of mind and helps in getting rid of anxiety.
An Adjustment Period Is Crucial
The switch can be daunting for many. An adjustment period where people have an opportunity to get into the tempo of work and the level of productivity that they had, is important.
"When we switched to work from home, there was this up and down of productivity. So, similar things can be expected initially," Dr Syeda says.
Maybe a couple of weeks of adjustment period can help everyone, she says.
Normalise Talking About Emotional Struggles
Employers must create an environment that normalises and encourages everybody to talk about their emotional struggles or experiences that they've gone through and provide help when needed.
But at the same time, it is important to remember that privilege is different for different people and hence, be sensitive about the things we share, Dr Syeda says.
"Maybe, talk about personal stuff instead of the other materialist struggles that we may be going through, because that will be more divisionary, instead of bringing us together."
Be Open to Discussion, but Be Empathetic Too
As much as it is important for the employers to be open for sharing, it is equally important to be empathetic.
This is because when we talk about sharing at workplace, it's not as safe an environment as we might want it to be, like a support group where professionals are equipped to deal with these things, Dr Syeda says.
When employers are having these kinds of chats - let's catch up, what's been going on, what have you been struggling with, what can we help each other with - these are great to have. But be sensitive about it.Dr Ruksheda Syeda, Psychiatrist
The other thing to be very cautious about is that people have lost loved ones and it doesn't have to be only family. It is good to be mindful that everybody reacts differently to loss and that the grief is different.
Keep in Mind the Needs of Women Employees
While the shift affects everyone, for women, the transition can be harder. It is therefore, important to keep in mind the impact on women employees.
Women employees might find it difficult to adapt to the change in the environment since they might be used to working around children and catering to the families' needs. They might be constantly on the edge about the safety of children.
Many employees are going to have a lot of apprehensions and irritability because of the sheer amount of adaptation and re-adaptation they will have to go through, Dr Syeda says.
Talk About Mundane, Every Day Things
Talking about emotions can be a bit daunting for people and they could be apprehensive about oversharing.
Instead of jumping into serious discussions, the better approach for employers would be to ask about every day things like travel, food, housework, etc, Dr Syeda says.
"That will create more camaraderie and create more space for talking about mental health."
Team Leaders, Be Mindful Of How You Solve Problems
If team leaders and managers see that an employee seems to be lagging behind, they should personally take the time out to ask about the issue.
Instead of asking "What's going on?" or "Why are you not doing this?", "Is everything okay? What can I do?" can make a lot of difference, Dr Syeda says.
So, just the change of that dialogue can do wonders.
"If you start the conversation by why are you not doing this, you're not really going to get the answers that might lead to a solution to the problem. So, even from an employer point of view, you're not really meeting your goal."
There is no doubt that employers will have many challenges to juggle in order to ease the return to the workplace. But what are some of the healthy ways to cope at an individual or at a personal level?
Give Yourself Time To Adjust
Employees need to take their time because the adjustment will take a few days.
"Initially, they might be excited and happy and then things can become a little blur, or the other way around...They might overlook a few things and later might have to fix it," Dr Syeda says.
Note: Everyone's Safety Level May Not Be the Same
What employees need to understand is that their level of safety or hygiene measures might not match their colleagues.
"If they're wearing a mask, and others are not, it might even make some anxious. Sometimes, there might be anger, and sometimes there could be squabbles, and fights."
Good Sleep Hygiene Is Important
"If you're going back to work outside of the house, you might want to start seeing to it that you're sleeping well and on time," Dr Syeda says.
Do it even if other people in the house may still be on work-from-home mode and not really having a healthier lifestyle, she adds.
Employees should see to it that they're hydrating themselves, especially while traveling, when they might be wearing a mask and not be able to drink a lot of water.
"When you do reach a safer place, please hydrate," Dr Syeda says.
Talk to a Supportive Peer Group
If employees feel that they are finding it difficult to cope, they should seek help from a supportive peer group at work, if there's one.
They should ask them what they're doing and how they're handling it.
Mental Health Services Are Just a Call Away
They can seek mental health services in the office if the workplace is offering it.
If not, they can access private care or call up helplines, through which one can speak to people from anywhere.
Workplaces should be open to the idea of offering support via access to mental health services.
For Professional Help, Talk to a Doctor
But if the employees think they need more help, a doctor or a psychiatrist might be able to provide the right guidance.
Remember, help is available in one form or the other.
"It may not always be something that you know how to look for. But if you ask somebody, they will tell you where to get help from," Dr Syeda says.
Restructuring how things are run can be challenging for both the employers and the employees. But practices are not set in stone. This could provide an opportunity to reevaluate work culture and usher in changes that have been long overdue.
There is no blueprint for the transition. But the foundation should definitely be of empathy and compassion.
"Whether I am an employee or an employer, team leader or a team member, if I work with empathy and compassion towards myself and to others, my workspace is definitely going to be something that is more healthy," Dr Syeda says.
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