As we mark the start of mental health awareness week, we are about to embark on another new normal as further restrictions are predicted to be lifted throughout the UK in the coming weeks. And that’s led me to think about how easy it is going to be to cope with another new normal.

For many, the past year or so has been incredibly tough – fear of contracting the virus, furlough, redundancy, isolation (self-imposed or otherwise) will all have had a sizeable impact on the mental wellbeing of many.

And please let’s not forget that 128,000 people have lost their lives in the UK during this pandemic – with 3,290,000 people dying globally, to date. That’s 3.29m families in mourning, and countless other friends and colleagues missing someone, daily.

I consider myself to be lucky for several reasons – I live in a country where the rollout of the vaccine has been comparatively successful, and I haven’t lost anyone to this devastating virus. As a business, we have thrived, winning new clients, and securing new team members. Not much for me to stress about in truth. But I am a little anxious.

The first lockdown required me to work from home, something I have never done before. Every day I was huddled over a tiny desk in Isaac’s bedroom with a footstool for a chair for up to 12 hours. I didn’t do the recommended hours walk, but I did cut down on the booze and that wooden stool did wonders for the firmness of my middle-aged arse.

As soon as I could, I got into the office. At first, it was pretty lonely, and despite the hourly zoom meetings, it was a bit of a struggle to maintain motivation. But with the company of Classic FM, and ‘Wilson’, my ever-present lemon tree, the isolation became normal, and, in some ways, I revelled in my new environment, relatively free from interruptions.

As UK hospitality venues open up and people return to the office, albeit in a limited way, we are about to embark on another new dawn. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved getting back into the pub, the gym, and welcoming the Realia family periodically back into the office, but I’m also aware that I have in many ways forgotten how to interact with real life humans, as opposed to the remote, digital ones I have spent time with for the past year or so.

Apparently, it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit and an average of 66 days for a new behaviour to become automatic. I’m a creature of habit, always have been, and the prospect of me having to break my newly formed behaviours is somewhat anxiety inducing.

As employers, I believe we need to be very cognisant of just how easily new habits are formed, how hard they are to break and the impact that can have on mental wellbeing. For many companies, there will need to be a big focus on reintegrating furloughed colleagues back into work. Some nine million people are estimated to have been placed on temporary leave or furloughed due to coronavirus, and while it may have been a welcome break for some, others will feel that daily life lacked structure, purpose, motivation and of course 20% of salary. This could lead to decreased levels of self-esteem, self-worth and anxieties about money. Isolation from colleagues may also increase feelings of isolation and loneliness and coming back into the work environment could feel alien, especially as the chances are so much has changed without your knowledge.

Then, we need to consider the worker bees who haven’t stopped during lockdown. They are going to be utterly knackered. They have in all probability had to take on extra work, extra responsibilities, and they would have dearly loved a rest. How do we support them in the new normal? Will they feel lucky to have remained in work or resentful of furloughed colleagues? How can we ask them to push on again to support recovery when they are already exhausted?

While we have all had to be more resourceful, agile and stoic, we do also all need a break and a return to the comforts of what we need to ‘base’ us. I just don’t know that the ‘normal’ we long for will ever exist again. And we must all be prepared for that.

– PW 10 May 2021 –