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What’s it like to start a career in a global pandemic?

What’s it like to start a career in a global pandemic?
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William Banks, Analyst at the Bank of England and TFTS Network Committee member shares his experience of taking finals, graduating and starting a career over the last year and how this has affected his mental health.

When the first UK lockdown was announced in March last year I was a disorganised and very busy 20-year-old university student. My life mainly consisted of regular nights out, far too many extra-curriculars, and the occasional bit of work squeezed in between.

By the time restrictions end this summer, I’ll be a 22-year-old analyst at the Bank of England; hopefully slightly more organised, and with a life that revolves around the Financial Policy Committee, not sports night on a Wednesday.

I’m not alone in this – a whole cohort of graduating students have taken finals, graduated, and started their professional careers since lockdown began. We’ve made the change while being constrained to our (childhood) bedrooms, with no post-work drinks, no chance to meet our teams, and often very little direct support.

What has this been like?

The biggest challenge I’ve faced has been working out what’s expected of me. In an office environment, gaining a sense of the culture of the work place is quite simple – you can see what people wear, when they arrive and leave, and how they interact with one another.

Online, this is much harder. Besides checking when people send their emails and who’s online at any given time, it can be hard to know if you’re working in the right way. I’ve particularly found that in quieter weeks my anxiety spirals – without regular meetings with other colleagues, it’s easy to worry that you’re not working quickly enough, or that you’re dedicating time to the wrong things.

In the office, there’d be tacit reassurance in seeing what others are doing. From home, I’ve had to rely on explicitly asking what I should be doing. While this sometimes eases anxiety, it’s replaced by the feeling that I’m being a burden to my colleagues. On one occasion, this feeling of being burdensome was bad enough that I had to take a day off to look after my mental health – something which likely wouldn’t have happened had I been in the office.

This worry might be eased if there was a stronger community of grads to talk to. I feel lucky to have already made a few friends as an intern who I can now rely on to ask trivial questions and talk informally about how work is going. But even then, I find myself missing a wider community – I’ve only met most of the 60 or so grads on my cohort over Zoom. Without trips to the pub and commutes together, this often feels more like a professional network than a support network.

What can employers do to compensate for these challenges?
In many ways, I’ve been lucky to work in an environment which acknowledges how difficult the on-boarding process has been. The strangeness of starting remotely was offset by a range of introductory presentations and coffees that did an impressive job of creating a sense of community.

I’m also particularly lucky to work somewhere with an organisation-wide commitment to wellbeing – I’m lucky to have been set up with a mentor, have access to staff counsellors, and have met multiple people willing to chat when I’m finding things hard. While this hasn’t made my anxieties disappear, it can often serve as a reminder that others at work go through similar things.

Not all new grads are as lucky – I’ve spoken to grads elsewhere who don’t know if there are any wellbeing provisions at their work at all, and see their wellbeing as solely their own responsibility.

It looks increasingly likely that we’ll be able to return to the office sometime this summer. Mostly, this is a cause for optimism – a lot of the problems described here will be resolved by face-to-face contact. But the future of hybrid home/office working scares me – new grads do most of their learning through tacit interaction, and this is something that no number of video calls and wellbeing initiatives can replace.