From digital to physical: Know from an expert how to get back to physical world as offices, educational institutes reopen

Being ready to try to know people again is a good start as we return to work.

By Dr Achal Bhagat

Covid has receded from the headlines. Soon, it will recede into the recesses of our minds. A catastrophic epoch in our lives is perhaps coming to an end. Millions lost lives, many more lost their loved ones, and even more were helpless and lost hope. The images of the upheavals in our lives will haunt us like horrific flashbacks for a long time.

It is in the midst of this post-traumatic reality that we will be gradually returning to work on site. We will trudge along, and things may seem just about ‘normal’. The words ‘new normal’ and ‘resilience’ will form the basis of the new platitudinal recovery narrative. Some of us will want to recreate the past, some of us will want to forget it and some of us would be befuddled and benumbed. We will present ourselves at work unsure and yet hopeful with a need to reclaim our lost selves.

How do we as individuals make the return to work safe?

BE OPEN: Being ready to try to know people again is a good start as we return to work. We have become used to treating people as unidimensional labels—Covid-positive or negative. Those who lost someone or those who did not, those who migrated and those who did not, those who helped us and those who did not… these labels cannot be allowed to define us. We need to remember that people are people first. We need to acknowledge and be aware that different people have had diverse experiences in the past two years. There is no one way of classifying and categorising people. Some people may have discovered a new relationship with their life and some others would have been exhausted by the overwhelming surges of anxiety and depression. Some may have lived with the experience of caring for children and parents; others may have been isolated and lonely. Through the times of Covid, we have lived many lives, not just one. We have grown and yet we have become shadows of ourselves. Everyone has many stories to tell, we would all want to do it at our own pace.

NEW BOUNDARIES: While we need to know people, we need to continue to respect their boundaries. Rediscovering people also means relearning to respect individual spaces and personal choices. Imagine a scared child, cowering in a corner of the room and you want to make friends with them. What will help? Seeking permission, being accessible or being all mushy and ‘huggy’? Let people be and be around them, there would be a sense of community that will appear again. Forcing people through some rituals to be a team or be ‘a family’ will make them feel even more helpless. And perhaps angry. We need to feel safe when we return to a world full of people.

What can organisations do?

ENSURE CONSISTENCY: Safety comes from choices, predictability and consistency. If people could determine their goals and the way they use their resources; if they were able to stagger the demands placed on them, they would feel less helpless. At the least their current work-related helplessness will not coalesce with their helplessness from the pandemic. If people knew what resources were available to them in a predictable manner, perhaps they would be able to cope with the imponderables and uncertainties better. While we want choices, we also respect consistency. If the frameworks and the guidance change quickly, it is not possible to feel safe. We cannot be suddenly start playing football when we were trained to play cricket.

We all want to be treated with dignity. Assumptions of maleficence and incapacity lead to hurt and bitterness. No one wants to sit at home now; people just want a flexible path back to work. However, people’s relationship with work has probably changed. Work is a way of being purposeful, but it is not an end in itself. It is not the person’s only identity. Organisations need to be careful that they do not end up herding people as anonymous cattle anymore. People need to feel respected, beyond the identity of pigeons in a pecking order.

Dr Achal Bhagat is a senior consultant psychiatrist and psychotherapist at Apollo Hospitals and chairperson of Saarthak

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