social risk of returning to work

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Today, our focus is on providing you with helpful insights so you can better manage the social risks associated with returning to work, allowing you to do so safely and confidently when the time comes.

In the UK and in the US, with the rollout of vaccination programmes, there’s cautious optimism that we shall soon see easing of restrictions.  Across Europe the situation looks more severe with further restrictions in place, or coming shortly, for many countries.  The Philippines (where James lives) has just marked the world’s longest lockdown with little sign of easing.  Whatever your local circumstances, what seems to be a shared concern by us all is how we re-engage with each other and with our workplaces. 

Social impact of Covid 

All this time spent away from others will have had a significant impact on not only your physical and mental but also your social health. Here at The Helpful Clinic, we always talk about your health in all three dimensions of the physical, mental and social (you can read more about our 3D approach here).  During Covid we’ve highlighted social atrophy — which is where your social skills and stamina decrease as a result of not being used — in terms of what it is here and how to reverse it here

Is it a tiger or a cat? Our brains always start with ‘it’s a tiger’ and then downgrade the risk from there

We all perceive risk differently

First and foremost, it’s important to understand that we all perceive risks differently. As you return to work and socialise with colleagues again, the fact that you perceive situations and risks differently will show up in some way.

In our Managing risk and overwhelm with animals and triangles blog, we introduced the Animal Risk Model. We refer to the levels of risks as cats, dogs, wolves and tigers. You can imagine both the likelihood and potential impact of encountering each of those animals and then assess the benefit of that interaction versus the cost. 

Our brains are wired to assume that all risks are life threatening until they’ve been downgraded. In terms of evolutionary psychology, this makes sense.  If you assume everything is a cat, it’s a mistake that could cost you your life when it’s actually a tiger. 

Why do we all perceive risks differently?

A variety of factors will influence how quickly you can downgrade a risk from tiger down to what’s actually going on. This influences what triggers your stress response or fight / flight / freeze response.  In the broadest terms we can group them into two categories:

Memories – previous experiences 

First, it depends what your brain has got reference for in its database of information and experiences. This can be what types (animals) of risks you’ve encountered before.  It can also be what’s important to the people around you (based on their experiences and information). If it’s important to them, it’s probably important to you.

Values – what’s important to you

The second factor is your values.  The values will be both in terms of your culture and your own personal values.  They may not always be obvious, that is until we have a look. Some cultures place a higher value on compliance, whereas other cultures prioritise individualism.  Some people value safety over personal freedom.  

So, as we start socialising once more in our “normal” places of work, remember that you will likely be interacting with people who have different perceptions of risk to you.

How you react to perceived risk or threat

We all have an inbuilt Fight / Flight / Freeze response.  Recently the Fawn response has been identified and given that we’re talking about social risks, it is a response that feels relevant here.

This hardwired survival mechanism helps us tackle whatever animal type risk comes our way.  When this response kicks in, our body’s chemistry changes and so does our behaviour.  Although you’re likely to see all responses in your behaviour at some point, one will be your default, so to speak, or factory setting.  

In terms of perceived risks in social interactions, this is how each response might show up in your behaviour:

  • Fight – alert to confront issues and perceived grievances 
  • Flight – primed to avoid, bolt or distract   
  • Freeze – shut down or become numb, spacing out
  • Fawn – accommodate or appease the person who’s posing the risk/threat 

Top three social risks when returning to work after lockdown

The risk of friction or conflict when returning to work is high. Image courtesy of Shutterstock

1. Risk of conflict with colleagues over hygiene

Ideas about basic hygiene practices, such as hand washing and social distancing, will likely differ. While you might be thorough about washing your hands, your colleagues might not. A colleague’s rigorous hand washing on the other hand may seem obsessive to you and way over the top.  

This reality is likely to cause conflict as you could easily assume the colleague’s ‘slapdash’ approach is putting you all at risk of catching Covid or that safety ‘obsession’ is getting in the way of getting things done.

2. Risk of you being defensive when challenged

Whatever your behaviour, if someone perceives it as wrong, you’re likely to be defensive. We all have a confirmation bias which binds us to our beliefs, often in ways we can’t see. So when challenged we perceive that as a risk which triggers our stress response.

What is confirmation bias?

As a result, whichever F response (fight/flight/freeze/fawn) you go to it will rarely lead to a positive outcome unless you’re able to bring yourselves into a more resourceful state first (more on that later). 

3. Risk of ignoring your own needs in order to keep the peace or win the argument

When we react from that oldest part of our brain where the stress response sits (the crocodile or reptilian part), we are less able to respond resourcefully and skilfully (read more about that here).  This can lead feelings of resentment and possibly increased risk of infection, conflict and impact not only productivity but also your health.

I practice taking 100% responsibility for the 50% that’s mine

It’s more helpful to be curious than critical. Just because you and someone else differ on what is the biggest risk, it doesn’t mean they are doing it deliberately to spite you. It may not even mean that they are wrong and you are right (or the other way around). 

It can be helpful to think of any interaction as a 50/50 shared ownership, their 50% and your 50%. This rule of thumb obviously doesn’t apply in all situations (e.g. in situations of violence) but it is a helpful reference to bear in mind.  This opens up our own responsibility for what we are contributing to what’s going on.  We can then get curious about whether that’s helpful or not. 

Rather than focus on how they are not respecting your beliefs and behaviours, shift the conversation and name that it seems that you have different perspectives.  Finding a third or a shared way forward rather than ‘my way’ or ‘your way’ is more likely to be beneficial to everyone.  One of the principles of nonviolent communication is to speak in terms of your experience and your perspective using ‘I’ statements or sentences that start with ‘I’ rather than ‘you’.  An example would be: ‘I feel uncomfortable when …. ‘ or ‘I need ….’. 

Assertiveness and negotiation skills

These are going to be your most used skills as you return to the workplace.  All our skills physical, mental and social are not fixed or static. They are affected by what’s going on for us. So have a think, on the scale of 1-10 how strong were those skills before the first lockdown?  Then, score them again on how strong they feel now. A 1 on this scale means not at all and a 10 means as strong as I need them to be. The gap shows you the training you’ll need to do (more on that below).

Even for those of us who are confident those skills can be affected if we’re tired or even just hungry. It’s also important to bear in mind that just because we feel comfortable being assertive in one area of our lives that this applies to all areas. Thor has never worked with anyone who’s 100% confident 100% of the time, including themselves. 

Start with Awareness, recognising what you are thinking, feeling and doing. Then bring your focus to your Breath and your Body, breathing in to the count of 5 and out to the count of 7 a few times and shuffling your shoulders and wiggling your toes. This will reduce your adrenaline levels and allow you to make a more helpful Choice and action forward. Read this blog for more details on how to use the ABC First Aid for Feelings,

Top athletes know that when returning to training, pacing is the key to building their performance power. Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Pacing gives you power 

Just like an athlete returning to practice after an absence, don’t expect yourself to be socially fit and strong straight away.  You’ll need to pace your social activities to build up your skills again (remember the gap we asked you about above on the scale of 1-10) and that includes the workspace.   

Here are a few tips: 

  • Where possible negotiate a phased return to work where you gradually shift from the way you were working to how you want to be working.  
  • Make sure you take breaks from the social aspect of work and have some solitude. Remind yourself that it takes time to rebuild your social strength and stamina.  If it’s been a year for you, give yourself 6+ months for this. 
  • Connect regularly with people you to talk get another perspective.  None of us can see the back of our own heads, we all need a mirror.  Make sure you’ve got a trusted someone to be that mirror for you. 
  • Ask for help if you’re struggling to resolve differences with a colleague.  A skilled and trusted colleague or friend is likely to be able help you find a way through and forward. 
  • Use your ABC First Aid for Feelings.  You don’t learn to swim by watching a documentary.  You need to actually get in the water and use it. 

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Go gently, hold steady, stay the course.
All the best, Thor