Preparing for ‘trauma’ of return to workplace

Becoming ‘fit to do the job’ to meet workplace demands, thinking about how to cope with busy places and being hyper-vigilant about germs will help in adapting to life post-lockdown, an occupational psychology expert has said.

The advice from Craig Jackson, professor of occupational health psychology at Birmingham City University, follows the announcement of a road map out of the current restrictions facing England by Prime Minister Boris Johnson

The academic expert and creator of the ‘Living thru Lockdown’ podcast, has offered advice in three areas to help with settling back in to working in an ‘unlocked’ society.

Employers have significant new considerations to make when asking staff to return to workplaces and previous working conditions, Professor Jackson said, which may involve a transitionary period involving more breaks and perhaps radical changes.

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“Many people have reported throughout the three lockdown periods that they suffered from sleep problems, including insomnia, poor quality or patchy sleep, and in some cases, unusual and vivid dreams. As a consequence many people have also reported feeling tired during the daytime when they had typically always been wide awake; poorer concentration levels; lower thresholds for being distracted from activities; reduced physical activity and weight gain, all of which are symptoms of chronic sleep deprivation.

“There is no guarantee that such sleep problems will be resolved when unlocking starts, and many workplaces will need to get used to this – workers will not be the same as they were - and this position could go on for weeks or months in some cases.

Encouraged

“Some workers may realise they are no longer ‘fit to do the job’ and workplaces should offer support to help such individual regain fitness levels where possible. Workers will need time to get used to putting in a full-day’s work after a disrupted 12 months. Many workplaces may want to think about incorporating more flexible working methods (power-nap breaks; flexible hours; more home-working; and staggered start times) and some could even consider more radical changes such as incorporating ‘half-day closing’ for one day per week as a temporary measure to allow fatigued staff to refresh themselves mid-week,” said Professor Jackson.

Going from almost 12 months of reduced social contact and enforced inactivity to now being encouraged to increase in-person connections both socially and occupationally might be a welcome relief for most people, but many may struggle.

Professor Jackson said, “People have got used to supermarkets being relatively quiet, streets having spaces to distance from each other, and car parks having available spaces in them, but this may soon end abruptly if there is a rush to re-connect.

“For those with social anxieties and a range of social “phobias” as well as those who have been shielding as best as possible for the last year, busy streets and shops will require some readjustment and graded exposure should they be overwhelming experiences. Shops and city centres could be as busy as both the run-up to Christmas AND the January sales combined, and many may feel the need to stay away for their own good.

“Public transport will no doubt fail to plan accurately for the increased demand in services while allowing for social distancing rules to remain in place, and commuting will no doubt be a source of strain and distress for many again soon enough.”

Being vigilant about social contamination, hand-washing and maintaining safe distances has been a primary concern for almost a year, and many people take comfort in maintaining such routines – with Professor Jackson suggesting this could be a mental safeguard that allows individuals to go out and about when necessary.

“The need for good hygiene and hand-washing will not go away when unlocking starts, and in fact it is likely to be more important than ever during the first few weeks of increased social contact, particularly in workplaces.

“As well as maintaining hand-washing habits, it might be helpful to encourage others to keep doing it too and to continue using hand-sanitizer when out and about.

“Many people may only be able to function and “cope” with increased levels of social activity after lockdown by using hygiene hyper-vigilance as their own personal psychological safety measure. It would not be fair to shame or embarrass other people who may continue this practice as a coping mechanism,” he added.

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