Adjusting to work in COVID-normal times

While some workplaces have bounced back from the biggest disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, working life is still not ‘back to normal’ for a lot of us. Here’s how to adjust to what may become your ‘new normal’.

In early 2020, two out of three working Australians said the coronavirus pandemic had forced their employment to change in some shape or form. For many, it was a case of losing work but for some, it was how they did their job that shifted. And, with so many businesses pivoting, work roles changed significantly for others.

Now, a year and a half later, many employees are facing a new set of challenges.

“Employees have gone from what I’d call survival mode where they were doing whatever had to be done and, in many cases, simply felt grateful to still have employment, to now where they’re starting to consider the longer-term implications of how their work setups, procedures and even roles have changed,” says Professor Karina Jorritsma, lead researcher of Curtin University’s Thrive at Work wellbeing initiative.

And then there’s the fact that even if your work circumstances are looking remarkably similar to how they were pre-COVID, the fast-changing nature of COVID-safe requirements and the snap lockdowns that crop up now and then are reminders that things are still different.

“Uncertainty and the prospect of constant change are extra demands for employees right now,” says Jorritsma.

“And even though surveys we did last year showed that people often felt like work was more stimulating than ever because they were responding to the problem-solving opportunities that all the COVID-related changes created, those same surveys also showed that as time went on, those extra demands were correlated with burnout."

How to navigate a ‘new normal’ at work

Jorritsma says it’s now well recognised exactly how much of a key role work plays in mental health and wellbeing.

“We interact and engage with our jobs,” she says.

“So when work-related demands may still be higher due to the ongoing impact of the pandemic and because we’re still trying to take stock of where we’ve landed, using some tried and true strategies to look after our mental health – as well as protect against the mental health risks that work can expose us to – is vital.”

The following strategies may help:

Keep an open mind

Things are still in a state of flux – and that’s okay.

“Don’t be too quick to make hard-and-fast choices now based on what you liked and even disliked about your work environment both before and during the pandemic,” says Jorritsma.

“For example, you might have enjoyed working from home during lockdown but what does that feel like in the new normal? When it was a necessity and your entire workplace, not to mention city, was doing it, it probably felt like a team effort. But as more and more people move back to the office, you might feel differently about continuing to work from home.”

Likewise, you might have thrived in response to the sudden increased autonomy, extra responsibility or tighter turnarounds. But if some of those conditions have become your role’s new normal, how well is it working for you?

“Instead of fixing yourself to a certain way of working right now and for the near future, be open to remaining flexible and accepting that there’ll likely continue to be small iterations to how you work – and how you want to work – in the months ahead, as we continue to settle.

Practise ‘job crafting’

Job crafting involves you actively shaping the way you work by altering aspects that improve the fit between your work and your individual preferences.

“In many ways the opportunity for job crafting has never been bigger, given many managers are relying on employees to share what they need and want to know how things can work better as we navigate this.”

So, if you’ve been relishing being able to work from home, you might want to discuss flexible working arrangements. That way, you can try to find the happy medium between remote and onsite working that suits both you and your employer.

Professor Jorritsma adds that thinking about your job’s work design in light of COVID-19 – that is, the content and organisation of your tasks as well as your relationships and responsibilities at work – is a good place to start. When it’s done well, this can offer protection against the impact that workplace demands can have on mental health.

“Some questions to ask yourself are:

  • ‘Do I have enough clarity around my role now?’
  • ‘Do I still understand the importance of the work I do?’
  • ‘Do I have someone to bounce ideas off?’
  • ‘Am I still being seen and rewarded when I’ve done a good job?’

This will help give you a better idea of which areas of your job are currently well resourced and which aren’t, which can help when you’re job crafting.”

Refuel your tank

Regardless of how well you’re now coping with workplace change, your resilience requires ongoing support.

“Having good strategies in place to cope with stress and to help you recover from work pressures, ensuring you can – and do – detach from work when you’re not there, and practising good work-life boundary management, will go a long way towards putting as much fuel in your tank as you can.”


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