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Brain circuits

Managing mixed emotions coming back to the office: Part 1 of 3

Published 26 April 2021 in Brain circuits • 3 min read

As things get back to normal, we will see at least some work travel and some converging in offices once again. 

It will give rise to a great deal of positive emotions, as teams enjoy social contact once more. But it will also see the surfacing of tensions. 

These can be broken into coming out of isolation, impulse control on the part of leaders and vaccination haves and have nots.  

Coming out of isolation 

Emerging from isolation and dipping our toes into social situations again has its parallels with army troops coming back from war and fearing entering society anew. Our skin is very thin, and our senses heightened. One of my clients said that coming out of isolation felt “a bit like flying blind.” 

The crux of the problem comes from feeling as if you’re still in danger, even when you’re not.  

When soldiers come back from combat, they often struggle with reactions in which their bodies still react like they were in a war zone. Adjusting to hearing loud sounds like fireworks and not connecting them with active battle takes time and effort.  

Similarly, health experts have told us that if we don’t wear masks and get vaccinated we risk dying. But feeling anxious doesn’t mean that you are in danger. The solution lies in training your nervous system to recognize this.  

Here are 5 questions you can ask yourself, to help initiate activities that will support this: 

  1. Have you(re)created your “safe space”? 

If you are working in an office that you haven’t seen for a year you might want to add things that help you relax and make you feel good: plants, photos of loved ones or pets, or your personal favorite mug. Make an effort to eat lunch with colleagues you already know so that you feel safe and among friends. Engage in office chatter again. 

  1. Are you helping your colleagues?  

I need a break – or even more importantly: “you need a break”. In the military you call this “to command sleep”. We are predisposed to thinking about leadership as commanding action – doing something.

However, battle psychology tells us that “commanding inaction” – rest, skipping a routine, staying put – is just as important.  

You become stronger by helping others. From battle psych we know that those soldiers who do best help their friends. So, try to think of something that would be helpful to your colleagues. For instance, call five colleagues and have a 10minute conversation with each about their wellbeing – asking not ‘are you OK?’ but ‘are you really OK?’ 

  1. Find and visit your sanctuary 

Leading through a crisis you need a sanctuary where you can reflect, re-energize and recalibrate. 

It’s about connecting with the activities, relationships and hobbies that give you pure joy and energy and allowing others space for the same. 

Sometimes those sanctuaries are the first we give up under pressure. In NATO units it was mandatory to exercise and especially during crises.   

  1. Are you dealing with survivors’ guilt? 

Feelings of guilt are very common right now based on questions such as: Why didn’t I get sick? Why did I keep my job when others didn’t? You may even end up believing that your actions, or inability to act, led to someone else’s distress.   

Don’t try to deny that the feeling of guilt is there. Instead ask yourself: Is the amount of responsibility I am assuming reasonable? Could I really have prevented lay offs? Did I do my best at the time, under the circumstances? 

  1. Are you moving your body? 

It’s so obvious yet so often neglected and so powerful: reconnect with your exercise regime if you haven’t done so. Start slowly to ease yourself into a new rhythm. 

Remember, healing doesn’t mean that you’ll forget all about the pandemic. And it doesn’t mean you’ll have no regrets. What it does mean is that you’ll come to see the part you played in perspective.  

Further reading: 

There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing by Adam Grant (The New York Times) 


Merete Wedellsborg

Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg

Adjunct Professor at IMD

Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg is a clinical psychologist who specializes in organizational psychology. As an executive advisor, she has more than two decades of experience developing executive teams and leaders. She runs her own business psychology practice with industry-leading clients in Europe and the US in the financial, pharmaceutical, consumer products and defense sectors, as well as family offices. Merete is the author of the book Battle Mind: How to Navigate in Chaos and Perform Under Pressure.


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