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I’m Not Okay is Okay! An Empathetic Return to the Office 

leadership transition Jun 29, 2021

- By Sophie Pinkoski

Despite the fact that restrictions are easing and economic recovery incentives are gradually bringing people back to work, we can expect the pandemic to impact us for years to come. Most significantly, according to Metlife, two in three American employers fear a mental health crisis in the next three years as we cope with the devastating psychological effects the pandemic has had on us all. In fact, there is a real fear that we are in the midst of a “pandemic of loneliness” while isolating for so long. We’re all in the same boat, suffering the same sense of loneliness in our own different ways. 

For this reason, mental health in the workplace can no longer go unchecked.

Your team depends on you to lead them through adapting to a new working era they feel comfortable and safe entering.

Here are a few suggestions to supporting mental health in the office: 

Sick day or working remotely? – If there’s one lesson we’ve learned from the pandemic, it’s that we can no longer allow people to come into the office when sick. Yet no matter how sensible this notion is, the fact of the matter is, there is often discomfort in discussing when to take time off work or work from home until their symptoms are resolved. Many people fear the ramifications of missing work, for fear of jeopardizing their position. In this new period, employees may have questions about when it is appropriate to take a sick day and recover and when it is expected that they work remotely. The answer may not be clear in all circumstances. Physical recovery is the goal. If that means having a lighter day or no work in the day, having a clear approach to getting well is the right conversation. 

Empathy first – Just like pre-pandemic, employees face family emergencies and other challenges that require navigation with their work. In 2021, that may include new challenges with personal or direct family integration with a reopened society.

Start with empathy. Listen to your team members when they’re going through something and work with them from where they’re at.

This builds a relationship of trust and means your team will be more likely to share their concerns with you as they arise instead of simply burying themselves under continually mounting pressure. 

Was “normal” really normal? – Many organizations have lost a great deal during the pandemic and look forward to getting back to a predictable rhythm where they can finally concentrate on achieving goals and economic recovery. What ideas do your team members have to make the organization as impactful as possible? Time away from the office has helped everyone see situations with a fresh perspective and the pandemic has given us many opportunities to experiment with innovative new ways to achieve our goals. With everything you’ve learned from that experience in mind, where are improvements possible? Try some new ways of working and evaluate whether the results are better than “the way things were done”. 

Dynamic management – Checking in with your team members can be a challenging process. What was working in the remote environment that could be imported to an in-person setting?  How did they feel heard? How did you know they were achieving their goals?  Being back together in the office has the risk of employees feeling constantly scrutinized. Openly discuss when and how progress updates will be provided and the team member’s approach of asking for help. Keep communicating about how the new approach is serving everyone. 

At the end of the day, you can help to ensure your team doesn’t become burned out. When you manage your team empathetically, they will be more open to the notion of returning to the office in a post-pandemic world. 


Further Reading:

The Hidden Toll of Remote Work, The Atlantic 

Even the CEO of Zoom Says He Has Zoom Fatigue, The Wall Street Journal 

How to Deal With Covid-19 Burnout at Work, Forbes 

The Pandemic Has Created a New Kind of Burnout, Forbes 

Wellbeing-Engagement Paradox of 2020, Gallup 

Workers Look to their Bosses For Mental Health Support. Many Aren’t Getting It, Los Angeles Times 

Understanding the Burnout Experience: Recent Research and its Implications for Psychiatry, World Psychiatry 

Resist Old Routines When Returning to the Office, Harvard Business Review 



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