How to get your social muscles working again after months of isolation

Question: A few weeks ago, I returned to the office for the first time since April. I had been looking forward to it. But when I got there I felt like I’d almost “forgotten” how to interact with the people I work with. It was as if isolation had left my social muscles weak.

I thought it would come back to me over time, but it hasn’t. What should I do?

Networking doesn't come easily to everyone.
Networking doesn’t come easily to everyone.Credit:iStock

Answer: If you’re a regular reader of Work Therapy, you’ll know we get all sorts of questions covering lots of different environments and situations. It’s a great chance for me – and I hope all readers – to hear about circumstances and concerns I’ve never even considered before.

In this case, though, you’re talking about something I’m painfully familiar with. In fact, just the other day I was talking about it with a parent at my daughter’s school. We’re in Melbourne, so we haven’t gone back to an office like you, but we agreed that something as simple as casually discussing a routine work mechanism or function is proving much more difficult in November than it was in February.


As you say, it’s as if a kind of atrophy has set in. And if we take your muscle analogy a little bit further and we think of several weeks of engagement with co-workers as your attempt to get your social muscles working again, it makes sense to me that you’re finding yourself still struggling. If, say, you’d stopped exercising physically for six or eight months, and then started again, you couldn’t just continue from where you left off.

Anyway, that’s all a bit metaphorical. To give you something more solid, I spoke with Dr Linda Dalton, a self-employed psychologist who consults with individuals and organisations.

Illustration: John Shakespeare
Illustration: John Shakespeare Credit:

“Social isolation, masks and distancing have all been deliberate social barriers needed to control the virus. Now, and until the virus is no longer a threat, these barriers remain. So what we are trying to achieve is some new ‘normal’ for interaction,” she said.

“Elbow touching instead of handshakes, reading body language without seeing most of a person’s face behind a mask, meeting online or being in rooms with the person next to you being over a metre away … “

Until we find a safe and efficacious vaccine for the virus, there’s probably no quick “cure” for your problem. Dr Dalton says the best way to approach it while the world remains so different is to use the resources you have.

While part of getting back into a comfortable – if not entirely usual – rhythm at work will be up to you and your own persistence, Dr Dalton says your employer can play an important part as well.

“Opening discussion and the development of any helpful strategies fair to all is the way forward.

“Let’s develop policies for those working from home to be included and accountable equally with those in the office. Out of every ‘war’ – and this one’s against COVID-19 – comes opportunities to make changes and reshape the future. This is that.”

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