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The Moral Injury of Returning to the Office during the pandemic

In the past few weeks, three of my patients were ready to quit their jobs.  Why?  They were frustrated by their company’s return to office policy.

I was very surprised.  Thinking about it more, I couldn’t help but wonder why the reactions were so strong.  Why, after two years of working through tremendous uncertainty, medical illness, losing loved ones to Covid, childcare fiascos, burnout, and more, would they want to quit now?

And I realized it was because of the intense moral injury they were feeling.  According to this study, moral injury is a “strong cognitive and emotional response that can occur following events that violate a person’s moral or ethical code.”  

For some reason, these seemingly benign return to office policies were causing unexpectedly fierce reactions that felt like moral injustices to these professionals.  Perhaps it was because these employees had especially prided themselves on sticking with their companies and fighting during these unprecedented times to do their very best for their companies.  These return to office policies then felt like a slap in the face.  

What was their experience?

  1. One person felt misled.
  2. Another felt the policy was unfair and treated team members unequally.
  3. The last one felt the policy devalued her and demonstrated her boss didn’t trust her.

Feelings of mistrust, unfairness, and devaluation can definitely cause a sense of moral violation.

They have not quit yet.  We are still working through their strong reactions and exploring the underlying emotions that were contributing to this desire to quit. 

But in the meantime?

Returning to the office during the global pandemic is a new situation for all of us.  I heard from my patients that they wished their employers had:

  1. Been crystal clear about the policy.  If things are changing according to outside circumstances, that’s okay, they can work with that, as long as there is continued communication.
  2. Explained the reason why the policy was made and how it benefited the company as well as the employees.
  3. Been forthright about differing policies for different teams, and had explained why.  Preferably, they would have had a consistent policy for everyone.

What have been your experiences with returning to the office and can you relate to these feelings?

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