woman in office deciding whether or not it's better to work from home for her mental health

Should you return to the office post-pandemic? Here’s how to make a decision which puts your mental health first

Posted by for Mental Health

Wondering whether or not you should return to the office post-pandemic? Here’s how to make a decision which takes everything into account.

If you worked full-time in an office pre-pandemic, what do you remember? 

Perhaps it’s the watercooler chat you’ve missed while working from home, or the ability to pack up your bag and leave work behind at the end of a long day. Whatever it is, chances are you look back on that time before everything changed with a certain sense of fondness.

However, in reality, it’s likely that things were a lot more mixed – and the way you’re recalling things is actually down to a psychological bias called ‘rosy retrospection’.

“The frustrations of lockdown will make us more nostalgic for times when we weren’t so restricted in what we could do, and this can have the effect of us positively filtering pre-lockdown days,” explains Dr Nilufar Ahmed, a lecturer in social sciences at the University of Bristol.  

“Our brains are hardwired towards a positive memory bias – where our brain holds on to, and amplifies in recollection, pleasant experiences. This is much healthier for us than dwelling on negative issues. 

“However, too much focus on a perceived rosy past can lead to shock and disappointment when confronted with mundane realities, and this can really disrupt our positive mood.”

A woman typing at her desk in the office with a mask on
Do you really miss the office, or are you just nostalgic for its atmosphere?

As Dr Ahmed notes, seeing the past through rose-tinted glasses isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, if you have the opportunity to decide how and when you return to the office post-lockdown, it’s something to keep in mind – especially if you want to find a working arrangement which benefits your mental health

In reality, it’s likely that both working in the office and working from home have had their upsides and downsides for your wellbeing and happiness. 

While some have found it hard to set boundaries while WFH, you may have been someone who found it easier to switch off now you’re outside the working environment. Focusing on these kinds of experiences – and not letting the bias of rosy retrospection blur your judgement – is crucial if you want to find an arrangement that works best for you. 

To do this, Dr Ahmed recommends, we need to take some time to reflect.

“Reflect honestly on your time before lockdown – the good and the bad,” she recommends. “You may be looking forward to seeing colleagues again, so you can enjoy the camaraderie and teamwork in person as well as the small talk and socialising that happens around work. But were there things that were a little bit bothersome, too?”

Dr Ahmed continues: “It’s the small things that our brains filter out because they weren’t really huge stressors and in the balance of things were worth putting up with. Perhaps it was the commute, office politics, the same boring lunch every day or spending less time with your partner, family or pets?” 

Not only will taking the time to reflect on the good, bad and ugly of both working arrangements help to prevent disappointment when you do return to the office, but it’ll also give you time to think about what you really want going forward, whether that’s a hybrid arrangement, returning full-time to the office or sticking to working from home for the time being.

At the end of the day, you might realise that you don’t want to go back to the office, and that’s OK too. The pandemic has cast many traditional working practices and attitudes into doubt – let’s not let our nostalgia for old ways stand in the way of claiming a future that works for us as individuals.

If adapting to the new world of work is taking its toll on your mental health, you’re not alone. From the isolation of being separated from colleagues and the stress of relying on technology to the threat of redundancy and the anxiety of applying for a new job, there are a number of reasons why you might find this time particularly challenging.

So, what can we do about it? We’ve got a plan.

Stylist’s Work It Out campaign, supported by Mind, aims to give you the tools and resources you need to take care of your mental health at work. From completing your Work 5 A Day to dealing with issues including anxiety, loneliness and stress, we’ll be exploring all aspects of work-related wellbeing, whether you’re working from home, adopting a hybrid arrangement or planning on going back to the office full-time.

For more information, including how to complete your Work 5 A Day, you can check out our guide to getting started.

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.