Anxiety in the new world
James Routledge is the Founder of Sanctus, a purpose-driven organisation that supports employee mental health through proactive and preventative one-to-one coaching in the workplace. He’s a regular speaker and writer, and the author of a forthcoming book on mental health at work – so, now that work patterns are changing again, we asked him to share some thoughts on how it all feels at the moment.
I don’t like the Tube at the best of times.
Yet after 15 months of isolation, lockdown and the COVID-19 pandemic I really didn’t like it.
I used to commute into an office five days a week. I’d haul myself onto the crowded northbound Northern Line Tube and think of nothing of squeezing right up against someone, my nose in their armpit. That was the daily commute. I’d land in the office, probably wouldn’t wash my hands, hug people, shake hands and get to work. I’d probably be in and out of meetings, I’d maybe have half an hour where I could put my headphones in and get some tasks done. That was the standard Monday to Friday 9-5, or longer.
Everything has changed
Now though, everything has changed. I’ve had 15 months working from home alongside my fiancée on the dining room table. For over a year I’ve hardly left a mile radius from my London flat. I go to the shop, I walk around the park, I work from home, I go on a run, I go on another walk, that’s it.
I’ve found it difficult; the lack of social connection and the lack of human contact.as things began to open up last summer, before being locked down again. Yet for the most part if I’m totally honest, I’ve loved it. I’ve slowed down massively, I’ve had more time for self-care, I’ve had nothing to have to say “no” to, my life has been slower and on the whole I’d say my mental health in the lockdown normal is better than my mental health in the frantic old world.
As we begin to re-emerge into physical life and integrate what was good about going into an office, with, I’ve begun to feel unsettled. I feel like my routine has changed again and I feel like I’m faced with decisions that I’ve been able to avoid making for over 12 months.
The anxiety that a social life can bring is back and the anxiety that groups and communities can create is back. Even if it’s mild, it all adds up. Does this person want to hug? Will they want to shake hands? I like hugging, but is it right? Did I do my lateral flow test right? Do I actually want to stay for a drink at the pub after work or do I really just want to go home?
The decisions, the questions and life as we knew it, is back.for me isn’t just about returning to the office, it’s about returning to the physical messy human world, where I can’t just shut my door and live behind a keyboard, or connect only through my laptop or phone. Whilst there might be less of it, full bodied human connection is back.
The first thing I’ve experienced is how exhausting it is talking to people, listening to people
The first thing I’ve experienced is how exhausting it is talking to people, listening to people; it’s tiring. When I have been into the office with work, the next day I’ve had a social hangover. I’ve felt completely drained. I’ve noticed too how easily distracted I get. I feel like I can’t deliver a single task in an office, I just can’t focus, all I want to do is talk to people (as well as feeling like I have to).
I’ve had moments of feeling out of breath on the tube and on public transport, noticing my heart rate increase and my hands get sweaty. Like I said, I didn’t like the Tube at the best of times; now I don’t like being in an enclosed space underground with a heightened awareness of deadly viruses.
The fatigue, the public transport, the social weirdness and awkwardness; it’s all adding up into.
One thing that’s supported me has been reassuring myself that this is totally normal, that it’s going to take some time to re-learn how to connect in person. Plus, giving myself and our team at Sanctus permission that when we do go into the office, not to expect to do many tasks. I’ve been clear that when I go into the office, it’s to connect with people, it’s that kind of work.
I’ve been more conscious too of how differently people are responding to COVID. Some people are ready to move on and have a group hug, other people are more cautious. What makes me anxious is making someone else feel uncomfortable, so I’ve found myself asking people directly how they’re planning to come into the office; “are you a hugger?”, “do you feel comfortable coming in?” – I’ve been making an effort to normalise my anxiety and everyone else’s by just.
This is normal and nobody is alone in how they are feeling right now
For our team at Sanctus, we’ve adoptedto returning and to working going forward that gives people the freedom to work from home and to come in and connect too. We’ve also done our own research into the burnout, uncertainty and anxiety people are feeling right now which has grounded us all in the awareness that this is normal and nobody is alone in how they are feeling right now.
As with any emotional undercurrents, talking about them openly goes a long way to lightening them. It’s the same with back-to-the-office anxiety, talking about your experience openly and asking someone about theirs will help us all safely return to this new world.
If you’d like to read more about the post-pandemic burnout, uncertainty and anxiety research that we’ve conducted, we compiled everything into, with support and insights from 40+ qualified coaches and a community of 300+ HR professionals.