Demands to return to the office – after the pandemic – must be kind


For many staff with disability, working from home during COVID has been an unexpected blessing, for a variety of reasons.

But there are potentially hidden down sides as well. The comfort of safe isolation may have atrophied relational skills and made going out into the world feel like a dangerous adventure to be avoided when possible.

We should see the pandemic as a cause of trauma for some people

We all respond to threat in our own ways. Depending on how we assess our vulnerabilities, we will respond to a threat accordingly. Some threats arise quick and subside just a swiftly. Others arise and persist for some time. The COVID 19 pandemic is a persistent threat. Under such a persistent threat adaptive behaviours develop and become normal. When things change, those behaviours must be unlearned.

It is one thing for the pandemic to be traumatising for some people with disability because of the risks associated with infection or isolation. It is quite another thing to appreciate that a demand to suddenly end protective adaptive behaviours may carry its own traumatic implications.

We all respond differently

A uniform uncompromising demand to return to the office will be met with relief by some – and alarm by others.

A demand to suddenly abandon protective adaptive behaviours can trigger trauma at the best of times. And these are still not the best of times.

Some keen observers in the DEI space are wondering what portion of ‘The Great Resignation’ is down to people making trauma-induced decisions to quit work rather than be forced in return to office demands that fill them with dread. Faced with an ‘all or nothing’ choice, nothing can seem the safest and least traumatic.

The impact of 2 years of lockdowns, isolations and avoidance is something we can only guess at. It is an unprecedented situation. But there is evidence that bringing atrophied social and relational skills to work can lead to conflict at work, triggering acts of exclusion.

Dr David Rock, co-founder of the Neuroleadership Foundation (NLI), had a short article We Need Time to Rehabilitate the Trauma of the Pandemic published in the Harvard Business Review in February this year.

Rock says this applies to everyone. The NLI ran a webinar on de-escalation on Friday May 6. It was clear from participants across the country that there were heightened inter-relational tensions as staff came back to the office – and there was a need to know how best to handle them before they became a destructive force in workplaces. The cost of such a destructive scenario on teams and work performance – and individuals – can only be guessed at at this stage.


Staff with disability have been expressing anxiety about returning to the office for some time. There are two considerations to be kept in mind. 

The first is that getting to the office may have always been something of a perilous and taxing adventure for some. I have spoken with blind staff and those with mobility disabilities who described the normal stress of getting to and from work. Working from home relieved that stress.

The second is that COVID is still a serious threat to some who may not wish to contract it, regardless of their vaccination status. If returning to the office requires the abandoning of self-protective behaviours the individual believes are important to take, the sense of threat will be high.

I don’t want to buy into the return to office debate here. I want simply to observe that for some people with disability the requirement to return to the office can trigger a multi-faceted traumatic response that cannot be dismissed or ignored.

Read Dr Rock’s short article and share it widely with those who may benefit from his insights. 

And let’s ensure that insight and compassion prevail.

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