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Returning to normal can be difficult – are you experiencing re-entry syndrome?

By Rachel Shermer

are-you-experiencing-re-entry-syndrome

Life may feel a little off kilter as we attempt to return to business-as-usual after nearly two years of workplace disruption, intermittent home schooling and various lockdowns and restrictions. If you’ve gone from a fear of missing out to a fear of going out, don’t worry, you’re not alone.

Many people are experiencing anxiety and stress around returning to the workplace and finding a new sense of ‘normal’ after the impact of the pandemic on our lives. In this article, we’ll explore the challenges and impact of re-entry syndrome and how to best mitigate the effects.

What is Re-entry syndrome?

Re-entry syndrome is a well-documented psychological phenomenon that describes the difficulty of re-integrating into a “normal” situation following an extended period of absence.

The term is used to describe the experiences of people who are struggling to reintegrate into society, whether it’s Antarctic explorers returning home after a long expedition, soldiers returning home from war, or people being released from prison. When human beings spend months, or even years, living a simpler and more basic existence, being bombarded with crowds, noise, and social events is often challenging to process, leading to feelings of heightened anxiety and distress. Unsurprisingly, this kind of transition is particularly difficult for those who have endured traumatic events while away.

Previously, this was largely unrelatable for most people, however now the experience is not dissimilar to what much of the general public faces in a post-COVID-19 world. Despite feeling excitement and relief about being able to return to their former lives, many people will discover their FOMO (fear of missing out) has been replaced with FOGO (fear of going out), and this extends to returning to work in an office environment.

For nearly two years, a large number of Australians have been subjected to repeated lockdowns, social distancing measures, school and office closures.

We’ve been separated from our friends, family, and colleagues for extended periods and forced to communicate through screens – all while facing the looming threat of catching and spreading the virus. It’s no surprise that our mental health has taken a hit and we’ve forgotten what it’s like to socialise as we once did – how to interact at a networking event or how to present to a real-life audience. For people who have struggled with their mental health and wellbeing, as well as those with existing mental health conditions, the prospect of returning to office life is particularly daunting.

Recently, Six Degrees Executive CEO Suzie McInerney hosted a conversation on mental health with the CEO of Beyond Blue Georgie Harmanon how the pandemic has impacted mental health and the best ways to support employees as they transition back into the workplace. Georgie shared some fantastic tips on how organisations can best mitigate the impact of re-entry syndrome in the coming weeks and months. Doing so is not only vital when it comes to supporting employees’ mental health, but it can also help organisations stave off the threat of the Great Resignation.

5 ways to tackle re-entry syndrome with the return to work

Here are five ways for employers to deal with re-entry syndrome with the return to work.

1. Small steps and small wins

At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a lot of pressure on people to throw themselves into a new hobby, learn a language, or emerge from the latest lockdown with a sixpack. It quickly became clear that the expectation to be hyper-productive wasn’t doing anybody’s mental health any good, and we learned to celebrate all kinds of achievements and encouraged self-compassion. In a highly stressful and tumultuous time, small steps such as going for a daily stroll around the block, spending quality time with family, or taking a moment to reflect are just as worthy successes.

The same goes for the workplace. While some employees will find no issue with re-entering the office and hitting the ground running, others will need a little more time to adjust and ease into things. For the latter group, it can really help to start your re-entry in small steps and strop to celebrate the small wins along the way. Acknowledge your achievements, the effort involved and pace yourself on the journey.

Read more: How to maintain your healthy lockdown habits in the ‘new normal’

2. Empathetic leadership

The notion that people who live with mental health conditions are weak, flaky, or unproductive is absolute rubbish, says Georgie Harman.

In reality, people who experience mental health challenges and who have overcome thoughts of suicide often display extraordinary resilience, adaptability, empathy, and problem-solving skills – desirable qualities that we so often associate with successful team members, people managers and leaders.

Struggle can ultimately lead to strength, but it’s important that managers support their people through the harder moments by practicing empathetic leadership. That means actively listening to employees, taking time to understand their individual needs, and making accommodations when necessary.

Managers should, of course, speak openly and often about self-care and seeking support early when mental health and wellbeing start to decline. This is pertinent as restrictions lift and we adjust again and re-enter work and social spaces.

In fact, right now, as Australia opens up, people are feeling unsettled. Beyond Blue’s new prevention initiative, Mixed Emotions, responds to a national survey in October which shows that:

  • One in four Australians felt worried or restless

  • One in five were finding it difficult to engage with others

  • One in three felt unmotivated and found it hard to perform daily tasks.

So, it’s completely normal to find it hard to express how we’re feeling, or to be unsure or out of sorts right now. This is common in transition points in our lives, especially after the stress we’ve all experienced over the past two years.

Beyond Blue has come up with some names for some of the mixed, even conflicting feelings people may be experiencing:

  • HappyFlat: when you're excited for the day ahead but just can't be bothered anymore.

  • ChillPanic: maybe for those who are a bit concerned about socialising again

  • WorryHope: when you keep switching between looking forward to the future and being worried by it.

As Georgie says: “Beyond Blue are reminding people that they don’t need to manage the mixed emotions and discomfort alone. Our free, 24/7 Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service is available to guide you through. We’re here for everyone, no matter who you are or how you’re feeling.”

3. Identifying high-risk groups

Some employees are more likely to experience poor mental health and wellbeing and be struggling with re-entry, simply because of who they are.

People from marginalized groups, including women, members of the LGBTQI+ community, and ethnic minorities may have already encountered discrimination and hostility in the workplace and find returning to the office an especially difficult experience.

Employers and leaders can combat this by doubling down on their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives. This might include providing additional training, setting new targets, accrediting Mental Health First Aiders, hiring a DE&I consultant, and listening to employees about their experiences.

4. Modest expectations

Employers must be mindful not to push their workforce too hard upon their return to the office. Even those who have been efficient and productive while working remotely may encounter difficulties as they re-enter the workplace.

Some organisations are adopting a hybrid approach, which sees employees come into the office on select days to ease the transition. Others are facilitating flexible working schedules or making sure to ease workloads and prioritise employee wellbeing as people find their feet.

Exposure therapy has been proven to be an effective treatment for anxiety disorders including re-entry syndrome. This approach encourages anyone suffering to slowly and steadily expose themselves to new challenges, confronting difficult situations long enough for the anxiety to dissipate and new positive associations to form. In a workplace setting, employees could be encouraged to come into the office on a set day(s) each week, attend meetings with a select number of trusted colleagues, and arrange lunch or coffee dates with their teammates.

5. Implement stringent health and safety measures

COVID-19 might be under control for the time being, but the threat hasn’t fully dissipated. Some employees, particularly those with conditions like social anxiety and OCD, will be anxious about returning to the office from a health and safety perspective and will require reassurance from their employer that sufficient measures are being taken to protect the workforce. Busy commutes, shared meeting spaces, packed-out canteens, and hot-desking are just a few of the factors that might be cause for concern.

As well as implementing and communicating a robust COVID-19 health and safety policy and COVIDSafe plan, it’s important to listen to employees about their fears and make accommodations to ensure everyone feels valued and secure.

It goes without saying that highly vulnerable employees, or those caring for high-risk loved ones, should be permitted to continue working remotely.

There’s no question that this is a difficult time, and unfortunately, there’s no blueprint for employers to follow to ensure their workforce feels supported. What leaders can commit to is listening to their workforce, practicing transparency, and readying themselves to adapt their policies and procedures.

Read more: Tips for managing back to work anxiety.

“A conversation on mental health”, a webinar featuring Six Degrees Executive CEO, Suzie McInerney and Beyond Blue CEO, Georgie Harman is available to listen to in full here.