Many of us are considering slowly returning to the ‘old ways’ of working – back to meetings, running training sessions or back to our offices.  For those businesses that have remained open during these past 18 months, creating safe spaces with adequate distancing, one-way foot fall, as well as regular sanitising stations, has been well thought through.  Companies like never before have put the physical and mental wellbeing of their staff at the forefront, and with many asking them ‘would they like to return to work?’, as well as ‘what would make it feel safe to do so?’  However, you just need to listen closely to whispered concerns of friends and family whose work reality tells a different story, with plans to return back to ‘the way it was’ as soon as possible, and for some, how it’s been ‘business as usual’ during the whole pandemic period.

As employers, colleagues and friends something we need to be aware of is that for many people returning to a shared workspace or using public transport and public eateries for the first time, their sense of danger will be heightened.  Let me introduce you to my fictious friend called Faith.  Faith is typical of many people we all know, who due to Covid has a far more active Hyper Vigilant Saboteur.  She may have been anxious about visiting busy places before, even conscious of the cleanliness of shared spaces, but since lockdown her sense of threat for her life and her families has intensified.  Faith has converted to online shopping to reduce the risk of mingling with others in busy supermarkets, even doing without to avoid having to do a supermarket-dash in between her next shopping delivery (something that wouldn’t have ever crossed her mind before!)  She’s happy to meet friends and family outside and at a safe distance and battles her internal scales of ‘letting them inside’ with ‘letting my guard down’ – often making meetups feeling tense and less enjoyable.  She’s happy to go for walks with her dog and family, but only at non-peak times and will choose more remote or isolating locations to avoid having to pass too many people, on too narrower footpaths.

So, let’s jump ahead to Faith returning to work.   How would her mental health be at the thought of getting back on a bus, walking down the high street, and sitting back in her open plan office?  One word – terrified!  Chances are Faith and others like her, have been living with this sense of fear and dread, have heightened sensitivity to risk, and constant suspicion of others not ‘following the rules’ to the detriment of all, for quite some time.  This Hyper Vigilance comes at a cost of personally feeling exhausted by being on red alert all the time, but also professionally losing credibility and even sympathy from others due to their a very different view of the working landscape.

We know from neuroscience, that when we feel stressed, anxious and terrified our defence mechanism automatically sends us into survival mode, to parts of our brain stem and amygdala that set off of our fight, flight and freeze response.  You’ll know the feeling of quickening of breath, sudden changes in your body temperature, alertness to sights and sounds and that coiled spring sensation – all in anticipation of your escape from the dangerous situation.  What we need to remind ourselves is that when we are functioning from this stress state, it’s less easy to access the other cognitive functions of problem solving, creativity, decision making, memory and empathy.  In a state of Hyper Vigilance, we can certainly make quick and decisive choices, but they will be from a filter of survival and problem solving, rather than from a positive solution focused and balanced thought process.

So how can we support friends and colleagues who have a strong Hyper Vigilant Saboteur at play to tap into their innate skills of empathy, curiosity, innovation, choices and action?  And how can we make returning back to work, whenever that may be, as easy and as positive as possible?

Here are some suggestions as to how to support colleagues or to use on yourself, when you have a strong Hyper Vigilant Saboteur:

Use the EMOTE technique.

  1. E = Explore – have them get curious about something at work they’d not noticed before, or task them to do research that could be shared in the office, possibly solutions for the workplace to help others like them.  By concentrating on something else helps to put some distance to the situation and offers a distraction, a positive focus for them.
  2. M = Mindfulness – if you’ve not got in place, consider how you can introduce some mindfulness practices into the working day.  Simple activities such as before the start of the meeting encourage everyone to ‘count 4 for breath in and count 4 for breath out’.  Introduce the notion of ‘getting ready’ for meetings by writing down on a post-it-note what you want to remember after your meeting, allowing yourself to be fully present.  (Ask me for more simple mindfulness tools.)
  3. O = Observe – ask them to connect to their immediate surrounding by noticing what they see or hear, what they can smell and taste as well as what they feel.   You can get them to say it in their head or out loud, by asking for one word all without judgment or comment, just observing and letting go.  When we voice out loud what is swirling in our heads, it often places our emotions into a new perspective. Or have fun by playing a game at break or lunch time where you drink or eat something, suggest with eyes closed and observing for 5 minutes and sharing your experiences.
  4. T = Talk or Text – encourage them to check in with someone they care about or trust.  Suggest they let them know how they are doing throughout the day or letting them know if they are looking for external support they can simply reach out.
  5. E = Exercise – encourage them (and everyone in fact) to take a physical break by going for a walk around the office block, or simply standing up and just moving about their desk.  We know that exercise is a natural antidote to feelings of depression and it’s a positive signal for your body to stop feeling stuck and trapped, and instead creating a sense of choice and freedom.

Use the 80/20 technique

  1. Ask them to write a list of their concerns about working in the office environment, ideally free writing for 5 minutes without stopping and without discussion.
  2. Then ask them to focus on 20% of the list that they believe to be the real areas of concern, encouraging them to acknowledge that these are the key risks and fear areas that they will concentrate on.
  3. Now ask them to review their 20% list and divide into ‘what I can do about’ and ‘what others can do about’.  By concentrating on fears that are within their power to change and influence will help them regain a sense of control.
  4. Finally, remind them that the other 80% plus items on their list are equally real and important, but by concentrating on just 20%, how this will be less time and emotionally consuming for them.

Get a Coach

Finally, you may want to consider offering them one to one coaching to help them adjust to the situation.  Often an external ear will provide a safe environment to explore their feelings without them feeling judged and in total confidence.  Ask me if you’d more information on how I can help tame their (or yours) Hyper Vigilant Saboteur.