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Aussies are feeling anxious about the return to a new normal

Updated: Aug 28, 2020

In March, we were anxious about having to isolate. Then, pandemic productivity pressures started mounting. Now we're stressed for the opposite reason — having to go back out and meet people.

Anxiety across Australia has increased around twofold, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Vets are even warning that dogs are likely to experience separation anxiety and weight gain post-lockdown. The latest report from the Centre for Future Work: Excessive Hours and Unpaid Overtime shows, on average, we're now completing an extra four to five hours of work for free every week. Experts warn that if we don't reclaim a work life balance, we risk doing damage to our physical and mental wellbeing. For other people, isolation has been a taxing, terrifying and even dangerous time for reasons beyond work. It may also have exacerbated mental health issues that were already present. On the other hand, some people have had really positive experiences in isolation – enjoying the peace and quiet of working from home, having more time for introspection or exploring meaningful activities. The latest Cadbury ad from the UK focuses on these latter, positive experiences with the message that “behind every wall of every home, there are wonderful stories of kindness and generosity. And this thoughtfulness doesn’t need to end when lockdown ends.”

Nonetheless, no matter how you have been coping there is a heighten sense of anxiety as restrictions start to ease and psychologists call this anxious response reverse culture shock, or re-entry syndrome. They liken it to the feeling you may have when you get back from living overseas, and it’s particularly severe among returned Antarctic expeditioners. Applied to the proposed easing of COVID restrictions, clinical psychologist and authority on Antarctic confinement and reintegration at University of Tasmania, Dr Kimberley Norris, predicts the excitement of being able to shake hands with strangers will promptly be followed by a nation-wide emotional crash after a few weeks.

The road back to COVID-safe workplaces is therefore littered with challenges. For organisations of all sizes, it means closely studying the government’s newly released health and safety protocols released as part of Prime Minister Scott Morrison's plan to get Australia back to work by July. However, coronavirus has caused a mass emotional event that no amount of workplace-issued hand sanitizer and is going to ease. Employers will need to keep their staff’s mental health top of mind during the return to the office transition and beyond. And while science tells us the reintegration phase may heighten anxiety, it also tells us that returning to normal is just what the doctor ordered, with treatment being “to go out there in the world and discuss with others and get back to your normal life.”

By Molly Bruce


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