Healthy Lifestyle

Many Returning to Work as COVID-19 Restrictions Ease. Mentally, It's Not That Simple

Published: June 8, 2020

While each of our lives has been altered and directly impacted, returning to work may cause a range of challenges, reactions and emotions. Some employees may have anxiety about returning safely or finding child care. Others may be tired of being at home and welcome the opportunity to return. Some may experience feelings of disbelief, fear and even anger – much like after a disaster.

This is new territory for all of us, and we need to have patience with ourselves and others as we navigate the process.


The Transition Back to Work

The return to work may be a relief or far harder than you expected. These tips can help ease the transition:

Establish a sense of control. Doing what you can to protect yourself and others from getting sick can ease anxiety. While many of us are suffering from “pandemic fatigue” and are tired of hearing about and taking safety precautions, this is not the time to push them aside! Taking these steps will help you feel more in control while helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Embrace the return to structure. Lack of routine can be a driving force for anxiety or other mental health issues. If you can, try to get into your work routine at home before physically returning. Wake up, shower and get dressed as you normally would, and match your work schedule as much as you can.

Be respectful and considerate. People will return to work with different levels of fear and anxiety. Recognize differences in comfort levels, give people space and respect your coworkers’ new boundaries. Fear and tension may be running high, especially in the first few weeks after returning.

Be positive and grateful. All of us – even our leaders – are dealing with unknowns right now. All any of us can do is make the best decisions we can with the information we have. And we all know how quickly information changes. Instead of finding fault, show support, be positive and bring out the positive, even in stressful situations. Being grateful will help you be positive.

Take care of yourself. Get good sleep, eat healthy and exercise. Practicing self-care will reduce stress and build your immune system, among other benefits.

Listen to yourself and others. It’s natural to feel frustrated during a time like this. If you do, take a break, breathe deeply and try to keep things in perspective. And know that your coworkers may be feeling the same. Offer a listening ear if you sense they need it. They’ll likely do the same for you.


When to Seek Help

Mentally, this has been hard on everyone. The weight of social isolation is real, and some people can’t just flip the switch and return to old routines. People who never struggled with stress or anxiety are battling it now.

In the coming weeks and months, employers and coworkers alike should watch for signs of the emotional toll that COVID-19 has taken. Signs that someone may be struggling in their return to the workplace include: 

  • Changes in performance and productivity, such as missing deadlines
  • Absenteeism
  • Irritability and anger
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Withdrawal from work activity
  • Difficulty with work transitions or changes in routines

If you see someone struggling, consider recommending a resource like counseling through an employee assistance program. Even if you don’t have access to such a program, take your mental health seriously. Resources like the free Methodist Emotional Support Line can help you manage the emotions you’re feeling. These are uncharted waters for many of us, and a professional can help us process and respond to our feelings appropriately. 


Tips for Employers

COVID-19 is turning out to be a critical leadership test. Now, more than ever, employees need steady leadership. These strategies can help leaders manage and inspire their employees:

Meetings can be a good thing. Even if you can’t be there physically, be present. Whether you’re meeting in person or virtually, stick to an agenda, keep it as short as possible and wrap up with something positive. Share your optimism and hope with your team.

Now isn’t the time to skip out on individual meetings. In fact, you might need to meet more frequently. Schedule meetings or check-ins more often, but keep them shorter. Now more than ever, connecting with your employees is key! 

Give your team direction. A lot may have changed, but your mission hasn’t. Focus on what you can do to support and care for your clients. Let that attitude extend to your employees and coworkers.

Make your team’s well-being a priority. Companies quickly rallied to keep employees safe as the pandemic unfolded. That was an important start, but employees may still be feeling stress over worries of exposure, financial loss or other factors. On top of maintaining a safe workplace, keep the big picture in mind, and extend grace when you can.


We’re All in This Together

No matter your level of comfort with returning to work or opinion on all that’s happened, remember that we’re all in this together. You can do your part to ease the transition back to work by respecting your coworkers and looking out for their emotional well-being.

More Resources

About the Author

Jean Faber, MA, is the corporate director for Best Care EAP and has over 30 years of experience in the areas of employee assistance, training and consulting. She has been with Best Care EAP since 1989 and oversees all aspects of Best Care EAP and associated programs. 

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