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  • Writer's pictureAndrew

Over the Hump?

The Psychological impacts as we dance with phased return to office post-Covid

As we are now beginning to re-enter our world as it appears that we are over the peak of the pandemic, some of us are finding that the pain is not over as we start to transition out of isolation. Many employees may be experiencing higher levels of irritation and frustration with others, and deeper negative moods than they experienced during lockdown.


Why is this?

First-half experience - survival mode

Employees had to adapt quickly to a new environment, some working from home being separated from work colleagues, some lost their jobs entirely, and we were all separated from wider family groups and friends, whilst being in close proximity to a small number of people. There has been the need to cope with threat and danger around the pandemic whilst dealing with personal and job-related or financial uncertainty. Here we were unwittingly sparked into survival mode.

It is important to remember what the workforce have already been through. The psychological experience of the first half of our pandemic experience, one of full lockdown, could be likened to stages of the Kubler-Ross grief model where we may be spiralling or transitioning from denial, to anger, frustration, bargaining and acceptance. This has been a truth for many of us as we face the uncertainty of the world we now live in while simultaneously grieve the loss of the world we knew.

Why, when it could be argued we have got through the worst, does the second half feel harder?


Psychological theory suggests a number of explanations for this phenomenon…


We don’t have a clear goal to work towards. In the first half of the pandemic we were motivated by a shared goal to either flatten the curve of the pandemic, or pass the peak. Goal Setting theory shows that we are more likely to be motivated to achieving a goal if that goal satisfies a number of conditions. Our goal relating to flattening or passing the pandemic peak satisfied all these conditions. It was a challenging but achievable goal; we were committed to it enhanced by the focus on protecting our health service and loved ones, it was specifically articulated as to what we had to do, and we received feedback on how well we were doing, and this was communicated on all media outlets on a daily basis. Since the peak however, there is no longer a specific or challenging goal that we are working towards. We have also realised that despite achieving our goal, there is huge uncertainty about how long we will continue to experience isolation, and what will happen in the coming months.

We are running on empty. The Conservation of Resources theory indicates that we need to keep a certain level of fuel in our tank to maintain our healthy psychological well-being. The two types of fuel, termed resources, that we need to stay healthy are physical and psychological. If we run low on one, we can ‘fill’ up on the other. In the initial stages of the pandemic, although we lost many of the physical resources we relied upon such as contact with friends and family, many focused on compensating for this by building new psychological resources – for instance creating new ways to engage with others, and building and developing new resources such as hobbies and skills. However, evidence also shows that in the first-half, feeling capable and motivated, we worked longer hours and took fewer breaks, further depleting our resources.


Employees are now finding that the impact of working at peak level has taken its toll and that both their emotional and physical ‘fuel’ is low - effectively meaning many are ‘running on empty’. Moreover, many of the resources that were put in place initially (such as zoom dinners and quizzes with friends and proactively engaging in recreational activities) to top up, have tailed off or lost their novelty. Given this, it is no wonder that many employees are feeling exhausted.


We are overwhelmed by the ‘noise’ post-lockdown. In lockdown, our environmental and cognitive stimulation was reduced as a result of physical restrictions. Since lockdown restrictions have started to ease, and the amount of stimulation we are experiencing has increased, we are suddenly experiencing a lot more busyness and sensory overload, more traffic, noise and people. We are also having to juggle and process a complex range of decisions such as school returns, holidays, social life and return to work or return to office. Many employees will be dealing with conflicting emotions of excitement and anticipation for change, along with anxiety, depression and dread. This overload in cognitive stimulation makes it harder to concentrate, problem solve, and remember information, all which contribute to further feelings of overwhelm and disorientation. It will take time for employees to adapt from lockdown to a new way of life.


So what can we actually do?

Create new goals

  • Create small, realistic and specific goals for yourself

  • Think achievable and enjoyable personal goals and plans that are within your control, such as exercise goals or planning social activities (even if they have to be remote)

  • Weekly or monthly goals give you a feeling of accomplishment and achievement

Conserve and build your emotional resources

  • Take your annual leave even if you are not going away

  • Revisit your work routine to make sure that you are taking breaks during the day

  • Employ boundary management techniques, such as starting and finishing work at a set time

  • Make time for those activities and coping techniques that you employed in the ‘honeymoon’ period such as connecting with friends and colleagues.

Be compassionate to yourself

  • Recognise that it is normal to find this whole situation hard and that you will have good days and bad days

  • Acknowledge what you are achieving and lower your expectations of yourself as your mental, emotional, social and physical resources are depleted

  • If you are struggling to concentrate, take notes and come back to it another time

  • Reach out for support if needed as a few insightful sessions with a qualified professional in mental health can help navigate your pathway through uncertainty to our new normality

While we may have some way to go before we move beyond the pandemic, and whilst we acknowledge that the world and ourselves will be changed as a result; there is comfort in the thought that the transformation may represent personal, organisational, and societal post-traumatic growth as we co-create new meaning and purpose in our lives by harnessing our resilience in a way that can ease our transition forward and not back.

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1 Comment


Susan Maher
Susan Maher
Jul 15, 2020

Very informative Andrew, thank you. I am recognizing some of those feelings. SM

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