Maintaining Your Mental Health When Returning to Work | Onlia

Maintaining Your Mental Health When Returning to Work

Worried about going back to work after quarantine? We offer up some tips on how to keep your mental health in check.

Alex Kelly
by Alex Kelly
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After months at home Ontario is opening up this fall, and with that, you may find yourself going back to the office. While working from home has been the operating plan for businesses and their employees during the COVID-19 pandemic, heading back brings its own set of stressors. How can you maintain your mental health during this time of major change?

Employees: Planning to heading back 


Right now, returning to work looks different for everyone. Canadian banks are projecting a return in 2021, and the City of Toronto has tentative plans to start reopening in September 2020. Some employers like Shopify and Twitter are shifting towards longer term work from home strategies. There’s no rulebook for this next stage of normal, and everyone is figuring it out the best they can. 


If your office is starting to discuss a back to work strategy, it’s important to prepare for this proactively in a way that protects your mental and physical health. The coronavirus pandemic was a major shift and took a lot to adjust to – now things are changing yet again.


The root of stress lies in uncertainty, so it’s important to seek clarity from your employer about timelines, adjusted office plans, and sanitation protocols. Knowing this information will help you prepare for the next step, as well as gauge your own comfort level with returning. If your employer provides effective cleaning and a safe work environment, then refusing work on the basis of COVID-19 may not be a valid approach. However, if you aren’t ready to return, talk to your employer – many companies are offering flexible work options that may offer a better plan for you. 


When heading back to the bricks and mortar, be kind to yourself. This will be a big change in routine, with more precautions in place. Even though your office may provide personal protective equipment (PPE), be ready with hand sanitizer and masks for your commute. When planning your trip to the office, assess all available options; travelling on public transit during off-peak hours may feel better for some, while others may prefer to use a personal vehicle or bike to get to work. 


If you’re working in a high rise, anticipate changes before you even get to your desk. High rise towers are trying to manage lengthy elevator line pinch points, while your office may have new contact tracing and mask protocols. With all the changes, you may want to bring your own lunch and coffee, allowing you to minimize additional trips out of the office as well as unnecessary contact throughout your day. 


Remember to take breaks throughout the day to (socially distance) connect with co-workers; studies have shown that human connection may offer protective factors in the midst of stressful events, allowing people to feel supported and empowered. It is a great reminder that you’re not alone in this new work environment.


Assess how your first few days in office go, and employ some self care routines to boost your mental and physical health. Experts agree that nourishing food choices, regular movement, sleep, and socialization are critical for maintaining a healthy body and mind

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Employers: Creating safe environments


As an employer, bringing staff back into the office may be a tricky step to navigate. Best practices for prevention of COVID-19 are changing often, but the basics are clear: limit transmission through sanitization, distancing, and provision of substantial PPE. Creating a safe environment that is welcoming will be critical in reassuring employees, helping them to navigate both real and perceived COVID-19 risks. Moreover, investing in their mental health is critical to overall workplace wellness: studies have shown that stress negatively impacts the immune system.


75% of individuals polled by CBC shared that post-pandemic they would prefer to continue to work from home more often, or go in only when essential. Given this, consider flexibility in your scheduling to alleviate overcrowding concerns or child care management logistics. Changes to public transit and commuting options may need to be navigated as well, requiring adaptable working hours. Managing expectations around employee presence will be essential to maintaining everyone’s mental health. 


The COVID-19 experience has been full of uncertainty – Harvard researchers recommend credible transparency when communicating with staff. A clear plan that highlights safety and support measures will do much to ease employee anxiety, without overloading them with information. Knowing that this may be a stressful transition for staff – lean on existing resources, such as group health plan benefits that may offer additional mental health resources. Reminding your employees of these options communicates empathy and preparedness, as well as a prioritized commitment to their well-being.

Work: Constantly evolving


Throughout our COVID-19 coverage, the only constant has been change. How we interact and move through our worlds shifts daily, demanding resilience and flexibility. Whether you are an employee or employer, the decision to head back to the office is one to be taken with care and compassion, as preserving mental health will allow for a stronger team to emerge from the pandemic.

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