Re-Entry Syndrome

Risk Matters - Winter 2020

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, nearly half of all Australians were working from home at the start of May.

Many local government employees found they were also either working from home, stood down or redeployed into different departments.

However, with the State Government encouraging people to return to the office, with assets reopening and significant investments into local infrastructure this number is likely to change.

With loneliness reported as the greatest source of personal stress for Australians in April, getting back to normal will be great news for some employees.

But, there will be employees experiencing anxiety about returning to work and while this article was written in the context of the Coronavirus pandemic – the issues discussed would also apply to people returning from long service leave, maternity leave or an injury.

Psychologists call this anxiety – reverse culture shock or re-entry syndrome.

But what is re-entry syndrome?

People who have spent a number of years overseas experience re-entry syndrome and it gets worse the longer people are away from their original workplace.

The phenomena has been extensively studied among Antarctic explorers.

In his blog, Antarctic explorer Alexander Kumar spoke extensively about his return to England after nine months away.

Upon his return, he said he experienced anxiety, apathy, feelings of loss, isolation and disorientation.

Some employees returning to the workforce after more than two months away may experience the same feelings.

Work-from-home employees probably created their own schedule outside of traditional 9 to 5 hours.

Many would have achieved greater focus at home without interruptions from co-workers or the noise of a busy workplace.

Those who were stood down would have found themselves filling their time with hobbies, exercise and extra sleep.

They may have enjoyed more time with family.

Redeployed employees may have found they enjoyed their new jobs more than the one they were originally hired for and might not want to go back to normal.

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Re-Entry Syndrome

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, nearly half of all Australians were working from home at the start of May.

Many local government employees found they were also either working from home, stood down or redeployed into different departments.

Read More »

Starting back

The reverse culture shock W-curve developed by John and Jeanne Gullahorn in relation to returning to the “home” culture, can apply to people returning to work.

According to the theory, the longer a person remains in a foreign culture (in our case the culture is a different working environment) the more adapted they will become to that culture.

It’s shaped like a rollercoaster because returning can leave those people affected feeling like they are on one.

The Gullahorns believe adjustment needs to happen in its own time and should not be forced.

People struggling should know there will be a period of adjustment and not everything will be the same as before.

What the rollercoaster shows more importantly is people need time to adjust.

How to spot someone suffering from re-entry syndrome

Unfortunately, all the literature written on the subject suggests that signs people are struggling to readjust might not be immediately obvious.

However, after more than two months of change, it would be safe to assume most workers returning to offices are suffering from the feeling to a small extent.

The research indicates, people who have returned from long periods away all reported similar issues:

  • Feeling tired or uncomfortable
  • Feelings of detachment or conversely anxiety
  • Mood instability
  • Increase in substance abuse
  • Feelings of loss
  • Frustration over loss of control of daily schedules
  • Boredom
  • Tiredness
  • Hostility toward workmates or employer

For employees

  • Ensure your sleep cycle has returned to normal before your return
  • Make a list of any return to work anxieties
  • Use your first few days back to achieve easy tasks
  • If you’re feeling overwhelmed talk to your manager or HR
  • Continue to take part in pleasurable activities you enjoyed during isolation – bake bread, go for walks, cook homemade meals for lunch, whatever made you happiest while you were away
  • Take “me time” throughout the workday – go for a walk, read a book or have a coffee alone
  • Avoid using alcohol or drugs to deal with anxious feelings.

For managers

  • Remember it’s going to take time for our whole society to “get back to normal” not just the workplace
  • Managers should try to have higher tolerance and expect some initial decrease in productivity at first
  • Be prepared to support employees concerns individually, as individual needs will vary.
  • Some employees may want to discuss flexible work arrangements now they have proof it is possible
  • Others may want to stay in roles they were redeployed into.

The best thing to do as a manager is listen to their concerns and work with HR to determine what is reasonable and achievable. Have an open mindset to determining a solution, and lead from a place of understanding, empathy and respect.

However, with time, as proven by Antarctic explorers normalcy does return and most people are better for the experience.

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Ideally, local governments will exit the crisis better than before.

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