Going back to the workplace in the age of COVID-19, after working from home (WFH) for a few months is similar to returning to school after the summer holidays. We’re going back to a familiar place with familiar people, but the world has changed while we’ve been home. Returning to work during the global Coronavirus pandemic has its own unique challenges. Recognising this will help us enter the mindset of being open to change and resilience, while also allowing ourselves to be tired, and possibly anxious or even unsettled in the first few days and weeks back at work.
Managing your COVID-19 (and back-to-work) Anxiety
What about the anxiety you’re feeling as you prepare to return to the office? Accept that it is normal and we’re all feeling it. The first thing we need to do is realise that there is nothing unusual about being anxious since everyone is anxious some of the time and much more often than you might think. Learn to be more present to your anxiety, explore it, and come to terms with it. Work creatively with your tensions without turning to excessive amounts of alcohol (or other drugs) to deal with them. Anxiety can be energizing (positive stress), a kind of tonic that can help make you more productive and aware of what you are doing.
Try to pinpoint the source of your anxiety (stressor). Once you identify it, you are empowered to lower your anxiety with specific actions. Is it Coronavirus related? Fear of exposing yourself to more people and contracting the virus, or bringing COVID into your home? Is it the unknown of how the Coronavirus has changed the office, not knowing what you’re walking into? Is it the change to eight hours of masks versus brief mask use in the store or mall that has you feeling claustrophobic and uncomfortable? Familiarise yourself with the new policies and procedures put in place due to COVID-19. Do what you need to do to feel safe and protected. Accept that you may feel disoriented at first but will soon relax into a familiar routine after a few days and weeks.
Are there other (non-COVID) concerns? Will it be the realisation of layoffs and missing colleagues? Will you be excited to see your colleagues, only to experience everyone behind closed doors, working virtually with little in-person interaction? Do you need to adjust from working independently to group work? Do you have conflict with certain colleagues from whom you’ve enjoyed an extended vacation? Is it uncomfortable to be returning to being around people versus working in your own virtual “bubble”? Check-in with your colleagues to see how they’re feeling and whether you have common concerns that need to be discussed and brought to management. If you feel your anxiety is more than your colleagues are experiencing or is causing major upheaval in your life, consider talking with a Mental Health professional or your EAP counsellor for support.
Planning for going back to work
The key to success is planning ahead. What’s been different while WFH (working from home)? Perhaps we’ve been able to work outside of our normal work schedule, possibly being lured to over-work. Maybe we haven’t endured or enjoyed commutes while working remotely. Possibly we’ve corresponded with clients and colleagues from a physical distance yet often have formed a more personal virtual connection. We may have had silence to be more able to concentrate on work without “passage chats” with colleagues, or we may have been challenged by household interruptions or childcare issues, finding it harder to keep focused and productive.
How do we prepare to return to the office? Re-establishing routines and schedules will be crucial. Start by visualising your day from the time you wake up. Pinpoint what will be different in your “new normal” and picture how you would manage the changes in your routine. If your sleep cycle is going to change, start adjusting to the new routine as soon as possible so it’s not as much of a shock to your system. Be prepared to be physically tired as you orient to a more, or less, level of activity. Select clothing that fits and is comfortable. Be sure to try on your outfits ahead of time in case changes to your eating and fitness habits were impacted by staying at home more as a result of COVID-19. Will your exercise routine change? Will you be packing a lunch, or do you need to research places that are doing office deliveries or order pick up during COVID? Will your commute time replace activities you’ll now have to make time for outside of work hours? Do you need to get the car ready for commuting? Do you need to check out transportation routes if relevant?
While returning to work during the pandemic may feel overwhelming, taking steps to prepare yourself for the changes ahead can make the transition to “the new normal” much easier. These are unprecedented times, so be gentle with yourself and take it one day at a time!
Tony de Gouveia