Change of any kind is difficult. Our brains are hardwired to favour the familiar. But change in response to a pandemic that has ravaged the world for over a year is a challenge without parallel.


Stress flies bombards us from a variety of sources. Whether it is anxiety around health or finance-related issues, traffic and picking up the commute again, managing family schedules, adapting to new protocols in the office or working with people who may have a different view of the virus and take fewer precautions, the ways our lives have transformed over the past year have left many of us feeling overwhelmed. People all over the world are living under a mountain of stress, from a pandemic that shows no signs of abating. Whether employees are working from home permanently or moving back into the office, this article illustrates how leaders can approach transitions mindfully when team members feel like it’s all becoming “too much”.


To get started, organisational leaders need to commit to creating a safe environment where they tell the truth about what the company needs and engage their employees in finding solutions together. The foundation for psychological safety is set when there is open and honest communication about common goals and enhanced expectations, as well as a shared appreciation for what team members are up against. Psychological safety – coined by Harvard’s Amy Edmondson in 1999 – is the shared belief held by team members that others on the team will not reject, belittle, or penalise an individual for speaking up and admitting a mistake, asking a question, offering a new idea, or sharing their true thoughts and feelings.


Examining the state of their mental health at work, however, may not be a practice many people are accustomed to – even if it is safe. Some employees may feel inclined to hide their anxiety about coming back into work, feigning confidence and positivity in the face of so many unknowns. Leaders should intentionally create opportunities for employees to acknowledge and address their concerns about being at work. Encourage them to pay close attention to how well they are coping with anxiety and ensure their thoughts and feelings are met without judgement. Feelings might even be incongruent, like being excited to re-enter the world with new goals and a new perspective on life, while still mourning a loss due to COVID-19, but these feelings must be acknowledged regardless.


This is where open and honest communication comes in, early and often. We are re-entering a different world, with new rules, and we are all coming from different pandemic experiences. Each team member must decide what their boundaries are, what activities they are comfortable with, and communicate this to others. Interpersonal relationships and open communication will facilitate positive opportunities for growth. Leaders may also want to open feedback loops with their team to ensure concerns are being voiced and addressed respectfully rather than ignored and accumulated.


While essential, technology can be another major source of stress. The luckiest among us have been able to remove ourselves from harm’s way and work from home during the pandemic. But we now spend most of our day looking at a screen, with a great deal of our communication taking place via video calls. Although staying informed is important, many of us receive a constant barrage of notifications that share all kinds of distressing information. Being too plugged into the news or social media can contribute to anxiety, depression and general stress. It is vital that we give ourselves a break. Encourage team members to stay informed but disconnect when they need to. Information can be filtered by limiting the time you spend scrolling on social media, getting your information from only reliable news sources (rather than your Instagram feed), and taking some time away from the screen to help ease some of the anxiety about what’s to come.


In conclusion, COVID-19 has introduced extensive and dramatic changes in how we work, most notably in forcing many to work remotely. We know that change – even for the better – triggers emotional discomfort in humans. Nevertheless, there is no going back to pre-COVID times. We can only move forward; to a new and uncertain future that presents us with an opportunity for growth, compassion and empathy. So, although there is no right or wrong way to handle re-entry into the post COVID workplace – and the emotions and concerns of each employee in this transition will vary – embrace the uncomfortable emotions that arise. Do not let fear call the shots. Focus on what is in your control, acknowledge your stress, communicate your needs, and think of the change as a way to build resilience. If this virus has taught us anything, it is that life is too precious not to be lived fully.