Now we face the prospect of getting back out into the outside world of work. This will be a big emotional shift after a year of being lockdowned in to our homes. As we go back to work we must take our own and our colleagues’ mental health very seriously to be in with the chance to ‘build back better’. Many warn of a mental health crisis looming in the workplace (the Centre for Mental Health model suggests up to 20% of the population will need new or more mental health support. Other estimates in younger cohorts suggest 40% may be suffering undue stress or actual illness. As an expert in how our brains react to change will make managing mental health in the new work world easier.
Read on to find out what happens and how to help. COVID 19 has had an impact on the brain and nervous system of every single one of us.
This invisible danger will literally have changed our minds. One of our brain’s primary jobs is to protect us from threats. Another of our brain’s primal drivers is to keep us close to other people, especially those we care about. The virus has put those two things in direct conflict and this is really upsetting to our nervous system.
Many will be desperate to get into the office and get reconnected with colleagues and friends. Others will be genuinely scared to do just that. So, we are bound to experience a really mixed bag of reactions as we venture out again. I predict that a lot of people will be surprised at their own reactions as we won’t yet know (never having been in this situation before) exactly how our own brains are going to react to being back out there.
Here are two brain basics that can help: first, expect the unexpected, our brains are wired for us to react emotionally three times faster than we can understand the reaction rationally – feelings always happen first. Secondly, the tried and tested brain-friendly model below is proven to help yourself and your co-workers to settle back in and find new ways forward:
Connect: Take time to really hear how it feels for people. Some will be in the room, some won’t. Don’t let a two-tier workforce develop (those who physically come back in and those who won’t/cannot) Two-tier is dangerous and risks reducing both well-being and productivity.
Compassion: Basically, just be kind. It’s easy to end up judging other people for handling the back to work situation differently than you do. Treat everyone with compassion and look for ways to help people. If ‘each one can reach one’ and work colleagues can build a supportive community people will feel safer faster. Any mental health issues will be picked up quickly too. Sometimes friends and colleagues can spot difficulties first. Remember, when the going gets tough, the tough get help.
Curiosity: We don’t have a back to work blueprint – so we are going to be co-creating this one. This is actually pretty exciting. Really include everyone’s views in how to create new ways of working. There will be some really cool ideas out there and possibly from the least expected places. Gen Z will have a very different view than older generations.
Control: Let everybody really have the air time they need to say what they think about the way forward. Give each person control of sharing their thoughts. Including all the brains in the business in generating the way forward will keep your business current. Work patterns are changing. Stay modern.
Mental health matters. Brains that feel safe, seen and connected are far more productive than those that don’t. Whether you love or hate them for their recent interview Meghan and Harry are right to talk about mental health issues so openly. Mental health is a normal everyday part of being human. Post COVID workplaces can help all our brains ‘build back better’.
Kate Lanz is a neuropsychologist, consultant, and author of the ‘All the Brains in the Business’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020). She was the first female General Manager at Diageo.