Back to the office: 'There were all these unspoken rules I was unaware of'

Young employees may need additional help when returning to the office as many found working during lockdown particularly stressful 
Back to the office: 'There were all these unspoken rules I was unaware of'

Young people who joined the workforce in 2020 or since may have been affected more than most.

We've been told how to look after our physical health and, as a result, we try to exercise regularly and eat well. But what about our mental health?

“We’re living in a time of great uncertainty, which exacerbates the need to protect mental health and resilience,” says Stephen McBride, counselling psychologist and director of services at the national mental health charity, Aware.

Young people who joined the workforce in 2020 or since may have been affected more than most. 

“Many spent the pandemic working in bedrooms in shared apartments or their family home,” says McBride. “Their lives were limited and those living arrangements weren’t always conducive to mood.”

An ESRI study based on data from December 2020 found that 40% of 22-year-old men and 55% of 22-year-old women were depressed, compared with figures of 22% and 31% in 2018. 

Internationally, a 2021 study at Monash University in Australia found that younger people were more vulnerable to stress, anxiety, and depression during the pandemic.

Fiona Byrne, from recruitment agency Osborne Consulting, believes the lack of social interaction at work played a part in this.

“Young people who started work remotely have been negatively impacted in getting up and running in their roles compared to those who started in the office,” she says. 

'Candidates are initially reluctant to return to the office, but we’ve seen that most find it beneficial'
'Candidates are initially reluctant to return to the office, but we’ve seen that most find it beneficial'

“They have missed out on the socialising, team building, and professional development that comes just from being in the office.”

Organisational psychologist Leisha McGrath agrees. 

“Instead of learning the ropes and what was expected of them in their new careers, they felt lonely and isolated at home,” she says. 

“Many of them felt they had moved backwards rather than forwards.”

With workers returning to the office, young people are facing different challenges. 

“They are anxious about making a change once again,” says McBride. “We are adaptable and have adapted so much in recent years, but all change comes at a cost, and it provokes anxiety for many.”

Byrne understands young people fearing the unknown. 

“Many have been working with a team for months and have never met them face to face,” she says. “This could be their first time stepping inside an office environment. It’s natural to feel anxious.”

Changing their work habits will be challenging too. 

“They’ve got used to Zoom and many will feel shy about dealing with people in person,” says McGrath. “Then there’s the noise and activity that comes with being in an office. It can be an assault on the senses after so much time at home and can be exhausting.”

According to Byrne, this anxiety dissipates quickly for most people. 

“Candidates are initially reluctant to return to the office, but we’ve seen that most find it beneficial not only from observing and learning from the team around them but the enjoyment that social interaction brings too,” she says.

Aware’s Life Skills programme

Some employees may struggle and this is where Aware can help. 

“Our Life Skills programme is for anyone with an interest in promoting or protecting their mental health or anyone experiencing mild to moderate mental health difficulties,” says McBride. 

“Based on cognitive behavioural therapy, it examines how we think about situations and shows us how to change negative thought patterns. It teaches skills that you can apply to your own life circumstances, such as the challenge of returning to the office.”

In 2021, Aware worked with almost 6,000 people, one of whom was Kim*, a young office worker whose anxiety spiralled when she started a new job.

“I’d suffered from anxiety since my teens, but things came to a head when I started a job that resulted in me feeling permanently anxious that I’d made a mistake or forgotten to do something,” she says.

It affected her whole life. 

All I’d do was work, come home, worry about work, sleep, and repeat.

Eventually, she sought help from her GP and enrolled on Aware’s Life Skills programme, where she learned the importance of communication.

“I was encouraged to open up and when I did, I was shocked that many of my friends had experienced similar feelings,” she says. 

“Now, I tell them when I’m feeling anxious and chatting about what the causes might be and coming up with ideas to feel better stops my anxiety from becoming too much.”

McGrath encourages young workers to draw on their resilience in similar ways. 

“Reflect on how you feel and then control what you can,” she says. “For example, if you find the stimulation, workload, and pressure too much, take a break. Find time to be calm or go for a walk. The office can be overwhelming but there are steps you can take to help with that.”

Don’t be shy about confiding in your manager, either. 

“Most organisations understand that this transition period is challenging, and they will do what they can to provide you with support if you need it,” says McGrath. 

“We are resilient as human beings, and we will adjust. We may just need some help in doing so.”

Daunting return to workplace

Christy Laverty, a 25-year-old copywriter, living in Dublin, graduated from university and got his first job during the pandemic.

“Working from the dining table with my housemates or from my bedroom was a far cry from what I’d imagined for myself,” he says. 

“It was lonely and made the job feel monotonous. I missed going out for drinks and all the fun things that make the workday more bearable.”

He had little or no relationship with his colleagues. 

“I had my role and didn’t know what anyone else did as I had no real communication with them,” he says.

 Christy Laverty. Photograph Moya Nolan
Christy Laverty. Photograph Moya Nolan

This meant that when he eventually went into the office, the experience was daunting. 

“My colleagues had been there before Covid and there seemed to be all these unspoken rules that I was unaware of,” he says. “I also found it hard to concentrate and it took me ages to get used to working with other people around.”

He has since moved company and had an entirely different experience. 

“I joined when restrictions were lifted, so I had a hybrid induction,” he says. “I was on calls with the whole team and had face-to-face icebreakers. The company also do team huddles where we chat about non work-related bits and socialising is encouraged, with funds set aside for it.”

He enjoys work far more as a result. 

“We work on a hybrid basis, and I try to go to the office as often as possible as I thrive in the office culture,” he says. “I achieve more, get more involved, and have genuine friendships with colleagues.”

  • Aware’s adult mental health education programmes are free for everyone over 18 and take place nationwide and online. Contact the charity’s free support line at 1800-804848 or for further details.
  • *Name has been changed

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