Keys to a Successful Return to the Office: Accounting for the Emotional Toll of the Pandemic

By Laura Mahr, April 10, 2023
If your firm is contemplating how to gracefully and seamlessly bring your workforce back to the office, it’s in good company. Bringing your team members back to the office as the pandemic winds down will be as novel of a process as sending them home. As surreal as working from home might have felt three years ago, many people have become accustomed to it. Oddly enough, returning to in-office operations may now feel both unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Each phase has presented uncertainties, and this phase is no different; once again, there are new issues to navigate and no playbook to follow.

The Role of Mental Health

In addition to exacerbating pre-existing mental health issues, the pandemic caused increased chronic stress, anxiety, depression and trauma, research shows. Therefore, in addition to planning the logistics of a safe return to the office, also think about the impact of the past three years on your workforce’s mental health. Considering the emotional toll and possible post-traumatic stress will enable your firm to make available new resources. Targeted resources will support all team members in their performance efficacy; they will also provide additional help for those who may be struggling to integrate yet another change.

When we have experienced trauma, it doesn’t just “go away” when the traumatizing event is over. Some on your team may need specialized help to recover. Time will tell how the collective trauma impacts our families, workspaces, and communities, so the kinds of help needed will undoubtedly change over time.

Lawyers, Too?

If you are reading this and thinking, “Lawyers’ jobs are full of stress; shouldn’t they be prepared to deal with the additional stress of returning to the office?” No, is the likely answer.

The way lawyers think and our ability to separate ourselves from our emotions may make it more difficult for us to make a rapid recovery from setbacks. We may find it challenging to process difficult emotions, think optimistically about change, and work toward a rapid recovery plan. Most attorneys act as if we have it all together, thinking that something is wrong with us if we feel overwhelmed or confused. We believe we are alone in our experience. An important part of recovering our resilience and coming back to the office stronger is understanding what happened to us, knowing that how we feel is normal, and realizing that others are experiencing the same.

Surge Capacity

Surge capacity relates to an individual’s ability to adapt to survive a short-term, intensely stressful situation. For example, when the pandemic began, your surge capacity likely helped you to shift the way you socialize, work, connect with others, shop, and exercise. You may have felt capable of making changes because you felt energized for a short-term shift.

However, as it persisted, your surge capacity likely diminished. You may have felt fatigued by all the changes and lacked enthusiasm or patience for continued change over the long haul. As your surge capacity depleted, you may have pushed yourself emotionally and psychologically to modify your life. For most of us, our surge capacity was depleted after a few months of dealing with the intense stress. Now, after such a long haul, many of us may still be depleted and ill-prepared for the strain of returning to the office.

Over the course of the last three years, experiences of surge capacity have varied widely. For some, at the outset, they found isolation to be novel, turning their solitude into productivity—cleaning the basement, doing online exercise classes, connecting with loved ones and colleagues using videoconference. Over time, however, these makeshift ways of engaging in life and connecting with others became less interesting and even exhausting.

Others, such as those who were already experiencing chronic stress, teetering on the edge of burnout, or going through a personal crisis—went into emotional collapse at the beginning. Their surge capacity was already low, and the shock and stress pushed them into overload right away. Some of the attorneys who collapsed early on are still struggling; they are exhausted from trying to stay physically well, emotionally afloat, and financially stable. Their surge capacity may be at an all-time low, and they may feel put upon to have to return to the office and draw on nonexistent inner resources.

Some who collapsed at the outset may actually experience their surge capacity stronger now. The pandemic may have been an opportunity for them to focus their attention on their mental health and get the support they needed. Attorneys who had a positive mental health shift may currently be concerned about losing their new edge by returning to old unhealthy habits when they go back to the office. They may feel leery about an in-person setup, as they have adjusted well to a work-at-home routine. 

Attorneys and staff who thrive on in-person connection may be eager to reengage in person, socialize with colleagues in the hallways, and see clients face to face. Other team members whose surge capacity for working at home diminished due to the challenges of making their home environment appear professional may also be relieved. These team members might have been overwhelmed by their dining room tables becoming desks or having to stay vigilant to the mute button to block out crying children or barking dogs. They may look forward to a clearer boundary between work and home, and not have the reminder of work in their living space.

Everything Is Not “Back to Normal”

As your workforce returns to the office, on the outside it may appear that little has changed. In-office operations may even look and run “normally” on the surface. But a lot may be going on under the surface. Be aware that no one went through the pandemic without experiencing additional stress. Many people’s nervous systems and mindset will not yet be recovered from three years of uncertainty, loss, and change. People will still be experiencing varying degrees of post-traumatic stress, and they may also have undergone a change in a life perspective that impacts their motivation to work the way they used to. Many lawyers’ and employees’ outlook on life, including their values, goals, and aspirations, have shifted.

Note that some attorneys will be experiencing decision-making fatigue and feel exhausted from navigating hundreds of micro-choices each day about staying safe from an invisible virus. These individuals may be overwhelmed by the thought of returning to work. This increased anxiety may impact their ability to focus on work and meet deadlines as they return to the office.

Additionally, most team members have conditioned themselves to stay physically distant from acquaintances and colleagues. By forming this new habit, their nervous systems likely developed an aversion to being physically close to those outside their “pods.” 

The proximity of co-workers in office workspaces may feel unnaturally close and even threatening to your workforce’s nervous systems, even with additional space between workstations. This aversion to physical closeness may trigger neurobiological defenses and cause team members to consciously or unconsciously withdraw both physically and socially at work. This impulse to withdraw may impact in-person collaboration and the fostering of workplace morale.

A Clear, Flexible Plan

A clear plan, flexible choices, robust resourcing, and resilience training are additional keys to a successful return to the office. Whether team members are excited or reticent about returning to the workspace, most people will have some amount of uncertainty. Many will wonder whether it is truly safe and what will be required of them. Feeling anxious about transitions is normal, especially when a person doesn’t have enough information about the transition plan.
1.    Communicate the Plan
One tactic that quells anxiety about transitions is to communicate as much information as possible as soon as possible. Provide written material about the firm’s back-to-the-office plan. Lay out what will be the same and what will be different. List the things for which you don’t yet have answers and acknowledge the challenges being faced; identifying what isn’t yet decided but is in the works can also calm anxiety.
2.    Reassure and Appreciate
Another approach that can quiet an anxious nervous system is reassurance and appreciation. When possible, reassure your workforce about job stability during the transition and share verbal and written appreciation for your workforce’s flexibility in adapting to so many changes. It’s all right for management to not know the answers to everything—remember there is no playbook for this.
3.    Give Flexible Options
Giving your team members options can help calm agitated nervous systems. The pandemic left many people feeling like they are out of control, and as a result they may still be experiencing increased anxiety or depression, which, unmitigated, can impact work performance and client satisfaction. Offering team members choices is a practical way to help them recover and regain a sense of control over their lives.
Depending on your firm’s specific circumstances, offer options such as a staggered return to the office or a hybrid setup such as half days or a partial week in office to help people slowly acclimate. Management may also want to consider offering the option for employees to continue to work at home; some people actually performed better at home. 
4.    Discuss Employees Concerns
If you notice that certain team members are resisting returning to the office, speak to them directly about their concerns. Discuss firm resources, offer options, and ask them if they need additional help. Take into consideration that some people, especially those experiencing post-traumatic stress, may need to move more slowly back to the office than others.
5.    Offer Resources
Offering firm-wide resources for mental and physical well-being is imperative to replenish team members’ drained surge capacity and help them orient to a post-pandemic workplace. These include any program or materials that support your workforce to recover from stress and trauma, build resilience, and foster healthy coping skills. Offering programs geared toward well-being creates new ways for people to connect upon returning to the office.

Creating a Surge Capacity Toolkit

Focus firm-wide training and CLEs on resilience education and on creating a surge capacity toolkit. Well-being resources and programming can be small things that don’t have to cost a lot of money. The key to building resilience and rebuilding surge capacity is “mini-moments of well-being”—infusing small but consistent spurts of wellness throughout the workday.

Resilience training can be effective using a neuroscience lens, providing both the theory regarding our neurobiological response to stress along with simple, scientifically researched resilience tools that can be practiced in one-minute increments during the workday.

Short, simple practices help people refuel their surge capacity, build their resilience, and improve their cognitive functioning. In short, they feel better and lawyer better. Many find that the blending of scientific theory and short, targeted stress-reduction tools works well for our lawyer brains. Armed with theory and a simple resilience toolkit, lawyers who are looking for support are quick to implement the skills and reap the rewards. If your firm offers resilience training that is tailored to lawyers and support staff as you ramp up back to the office or upon returning, it will help your workforce recover from the trauma of the pandemic and build lifelong skills that prevent burnout and increase productivity.

Moving Through the Next Phase

As we move through this next phase of life, know that we are still navigating a lot of unknowns, and there are still many choices to be made. The pandemic may shift our legal culture from feeling uncomfortable talking about mental health to normalizing it as a necessary part of lawyering well. A firm that is mental-health-informed and unites to implement mini-moments of well-being throughout the workday is best prepared to traverse the uncertainties of the now and those to come.
– Laura Mahr
Founder of Conscious Legal Minds LLC.

This article originally appeared in Law Practice Magazine printed by the American Bar Association in May 2021. Reprinted with permission.

Laura Mahr is an Oregon lawyer, a North Carolina lawyer, and the founder of Conscious Legal Minds LLC, providing well-being consulting, training, and resilience coaching for attorneys and law offices nationwide. She authors the “Pathways to Well-Being” column in the NC State Bar Journal and the “Mindful Moment” column in the NC Lawyer Assistance Program’s Sidebar publication.
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