Do we need to re-learn to socialise?
During the Covid pandemic, the percentage of the UK workforce working from home rose dramatically from around 5% to 45%. On top of that, around 4.7 million people have been furloughed. This means that more than half our workforce have spent part, if not all, of the last 12 months in some form of social isolation. Our living arrangements, relationships and working patterns – three areas of our lives that have a huge bearing on our psychological stability – have all changed. And while we have all longed for an end to lockdown, it seems that, in the meantime, we have lost our social stamina. Our social muscles are not what they used to be. They have shrivelled, leaving many of us anxious and overwhelmed at the thought of returning to work.
Back to normal?
As lockdown starts to ease, does this mean that there is going to be a learning curve to feeling normal? Do we have to re-learn to socialise and re-train ourselves to be around friends and colleagues again? The answer for the majority is yes. Some true extroverts may throw themselves back into the workplace with glee. The rest of us may find that we have lost confidence, and with good reason. We have lost the habitual bonding we were so used to in our daily working lives – the chats with colleagues by the coffee machine, in-person team meetings where we can judge feelings and emotions, eating with colleagues indoors. Our ability to connect has diminished, so there is a need to re-learn to socialise.
When we socialise, our brains produce the powerful hormone oxytocin, which drives us to interact, engage and bond with other people. Loneliness and social isolation can be linked to cognitive decline. People with larger social networks tend to have a larger amygdala (the part of the brain that processes emotions). One effect of our lack of social interaction can be a greater likelihood of suffering from depression and negativity. Psychologists are reporting more cases of social anxiety the longer we are spending in lockdown. Isolation also affects memory and verbal recall. So if you just can’t find the right words when speaking to people, you’re probably not alone right now. We have been told over and over again that other people are dangerous. The ride into work is dangerous. The workplace is dangerous. It is entirely understandable that we now feel anxious in crowded spaces and social situations. Humans have developed a psychological survival tool called Avoidance. We avoid what we fear. Unfortunately, the more we avoid it, the more anxious we feel about it, and it becomes a vicious circle.
Re-training our social muscles
There is some good news, however. With time, patience, a little kindness and practice, we can re-train our social muscles, re-learn to socialise and regain our desire to be with people. Social connection is fundamental to us feeling healthy and whole. As we start to see and engage with people again, it will improve our moods and emotions. Our initial forays back into the workplace and its enforced social interactions will make our brains produce the happy hormones serotonin and dopamine. From the first discussion of Line of Duty or Strictly around the water cooler, this rush of hormones will motivate us to want more. The crushing, swimming-through-treacle feeling will begin to lift as we slowly and carefully re-enter the world of work.
The keywords here are slowly and carefully. The key to re-integrating is to take time, be kind to ourselves and our colleagues, to push ourselves a little more each day, and to build up from there. As employers, we need to take this on board, be understanding and expect behaviours that are outside the norm such as hyperactivity, intolerance, irritability. We have a duty to plan the re-socialisation of our workforce. It isn’t going to happen overnight but with a mindful approach, you can welcome your staff back into the workplace and begin the process of re-building your teams. Don’t, whatever you do, go planning a massive, post-pandemic team building event. Start small and work your way up to the big events you are used to. For now, get your staff together in small groups to begin with. Get them talking – about their lockdown experiences, their current anxieties, any ideas or suggestions they have to help overcome them. Keep in mind that just about everyone will be socially awkward to some extent. They may not want to shake hands just yet. They may prefer to still wear a mask indoors. Everyone is likely to have qualms and they need the space and the freedom to voice them.
Get people talking
At The Big Picture People, we specialise in getting people talking. Our bespoke, interactive tools and learning games are engineered around your organisation and your workforce. Working in small groups, a specially-tailored Big Picture game could give your staff the freedom to open up about their concerns, anxieties and ideas, all in a fun and non-threatening environment. Obviously, there is a lot more to it than that. To find out just how games and interactive tools can bring teams together, book a free 30-minute consultation. The post-pandemic return to work is about to start. Make sure you are ready for the reality of it and plan in the peace of mind that your staff need and deserve.