What Bournemouth beach tells us about transitioning back to work

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Transitioning back to the workplace
Understand the psychology behind Bournemouth beach during COVID and you can better support people as they transition back to work.

The fear surrounding COVID-19 is something all people have in common on a global scale. The intense media frenzy featuring death tolls and scary statistics, the financial uncertainty, the mile-long supermarket queues and the closure of schools are all shaping our psychology.

It’s the way we respond to this fear that separates and divides us.

On the 25 June 2020, Dorset police declared a “major incident” as thousands of sunseekers mocked the social distancing rules on Bournemouth beach. “The irresponsible behaviour and actions of so many people is just shocking and our services are stretched to the absolute hilt” says Council leader Vikki Slade.

To the millions of people who chose to stay home that day, this behaviour seemed unfathomable. Here’s why:

Psychology offers many theories that might explain why people behave in an anti-social way. Freud’s “Dynamic Unconscious,” argues our unconscious brain instinctively represses feelings of fear to protect our psychological wellbeing. He called this act of repression “defence mechanisms,” and it’s why on an everyday basis, most of us continue to function when faced with the fear and uncertainty of COVID-19.  It also leads us to be more tribalistic as we conform to authority and reject people we perceive to be a threat.

However, he suggested that in extreme situations, fear can emerge unconsciously as antisocial behaviour, because people can no longer tolerate the intense feelings of powerlessness or threat. In other words, the Bournemouth beach event was just a pressure cooker waiting to happen!

Hoffman’s (2020) Psychology Today article highlights why the recent social distancing measures are problematic, as interpersonal connections are central to human resilience. He argues that in times of crisis, we experience a heightened reliance on social relationships that enable us to adapt.

He cites Becker’s (1973) Terror Management Theory (TMT) as a way to understand the sources of problems associated with COVID-19. TMT argues it is our awareness of mortality that creates debilitating terror and a way of navigating this terror is through social connections.

How can use the “Dynamic Unconscious” as a way to understand behaviour when transitioning back to work?

The staged release of Government lockdown measures means many people are now expected to move from remote working and back into a workplace setting. The functioning of the “dynamic unconscious” means most people will conform and take this move in their stride. But for others, this change can feel overwhelming, and their responses put them at risk of being misunderstood or rejected by the rest of the team.

As a manager or a leader, it’s essential to understand that everyone deals with fear differently. Someone fearful of transitioning back to work may appear resistant or even aggressive as they perceive their “right to feel safe” is being violated. The irony is that this antisocial behaviour puts barriers between people in the workplace when we know that social connections and support are crucial to managing fear.

Top tips for supporting people transitioning back to work

Avoid judgement: Remember that everyone deals with disruption, fear and change differently. Some thrive, while others see it simply as survival.

Be empathically curious: Don’t focus on changing people’s perspectives, put yourself in their shoes and listen.

See behind the behaviour: If someone is behaving out of character, ask them to help you understand why they are acting in a certain way. 

Help them see a way forward: What do they think is the way forward? What time frame are they comfortable with? Remember to avoid judgment!

The quality of our relationships is determined by our ability to connect with others. It enables us to build strength and trust, so the pressure cooker doesn’t blow. Successfully transitioning back to work requires a recognition that we don’t all have to feel the same way or share the same opinions. It is about meeting people where they are and moving forward together.

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