How the psychology of the office can affect employees

There is now a huge emphasis on employers putting health and wellbeing on the corporate agenda, regardless of where their staff work, says Nerina Ramlakhan

Working from home was the norm for many office-based workers during the first two lockdowns, but as we have now embarked on a hybrid way of working or a full return to the office, there will be an ongoing debate as to what is best for us, physically, mentally, emotionally and for our productivity. 

Working from home brought advantages, with less time spent commuting, savings on travel costs, and a lifestyle more centred around family and healthy practices. But for many, there have also been disadvantages, such as feeling disconnected and lonely, with increased stress about performance. For many the blurring of the lines between work and home life has presented significant challenges. We even saw Zoom fatigue become the new repetitive strain injury and, in my work, I saw many start to burn out as a result of constant virtual interaction.

A return to the office then brought a new set of feelings, with change bringing some positive energy as well as uncertainty as to how it would be and whether a mass return to working from home would be reintroduced further down the line. While commuting, crowds and in-person meetings were strangely unfamiliar and a resilient mindset was needed, many have also reported the positive boost from the social interaction of being around work colleagues again.

There is no escaping the ‘always on’ culture that pervades our society in general. Our love affair with technology and responding reactively to 24/7 demand has played a crucial role in depleting our mental and physical health – including the immune system. Working patterns have become even more linear (go, go, go and then stop), so the need to be mindful of our own wellbeing is increasingly important. 

But is it possible that the challenges of the last year have made us re-evaluate our ways of working and living our lives? Many people are telling me that they are ready to redress the balance and are adopting healthier practices whether working from home or the physical workplace.

So, here’s my guide to what these healthier practices are, wherever you work:

Take regular breaks

A good place to start is by looking at the importance of recovery as the counterbalance to our linear pattern of working. One of the simplest and most effective ways to alleviate a high-stress company culture is to build rest into our working day. 

Every 60-90mins, in line with our body’s natural ultradian rhythm, seek recovery even for just 5-10 minutes. Stretch, take a few conscious deep breaths, drink a glass of water, get some fresh air, go for a short phone-free, meeting-free walk, get away from your desk and screens.  

Introduce a healthy routine

Do we hold ourselves in high enough regard that we are able to make healthy choices? We need to be eating breakfast, drinking plenty of water, allowing ourselves rest and relaxation. Take the opportunity to prepare healthy meals in our lunch breaks and not eat in front of the screen. Our everyday choices will lead either to feeling great and being at our peak or simply on a path to burnout and mental fatigue. 

Check in with ourselves

We should take time every morning to check in with ourselves before moving out into the day. Doing this first thing in the day, rather than reaching for our phones and getting caught up in the news, social media or our inboxes, enables us to stand in the centre of our life, to take responsibility for ourselves. This gives us response-ability, the ability to respond and to make choices based on how we are feeling in the present moment rather than reacting to what’s out there in our inboxes or on the news.

Sleep more

In addition to our choices, a good night’s sleep is so important to maintain productivity. Our sleep before midnight is the most restorative phase of sleep, so set a goal to get to bed before 10pm at least 3-4 nights a week in order to get really deep, nourishing sleep that sets up our energy levels for a happy and productive day. 

Human engagement

Create cohesion by encouraging authentic and meaningful human to human communication in the workplace. When using virtual or in-person interaction, let us take the time to slow down and truly relate to each other. Use eye contact and smile at colleagues. Start meetings with a simple check in. Encourage and allow some time for banter and laughter – not only does this build cohesion, but humour also creates psychological safety as well as opening up creativity and expansive thinking.  

Who is responsible for wellbeing?

There are layers of responsibility which start from us, the individuals, taking responsibility for ourselves, and creating our own healthy mindset. Then managers, senior leaders and board members will need to work on creating the culture in which it is psychologically safe for individuals to work in a healthy fashion by themselves being the change and modelling the appropriate behaviours. 

The leader who does the work on themself creates a positive contagion of thriving and safety. The real work lies in choosing to face headlong what needs to be faced without avoiding, medicating or distracting. Leaders who are prepared to be present with themselves and with whatever arises can bring the best of themselves to the workplace.  

It is now non-negotiable for employers to put health and wellbeing on the corporate agenda regardless of where the employees work. A significant competitive advantage will lie with those organisations whose leaders are genuinely committed to working on their own mental health and resilience and creating cultures for their staff in which it is acceptable for people to thrive in their work environments. Leaders, managers and HR departments will need to model appropriate behaviours – they will need to be the change.

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan is a neurophysiologist who offers organisational consultancy, workshop facilitation and coaching