How to manage “return to work” anxiety during the pandemic

The gradual removal of COVID-19 restrictions following months of strict physical distancing and relative isolation can cause a sense of apprehension and unease.

According to a recent study, the number of Canadians who reported high-to-extreme levels of anxiety grew from 5 to 20 percent with the onset of COVID-19. Similarly, self-reported cases of depression more than doubled, from 4 to 10 percent.

The prospect of returning to work can cause a variety of thoughts and emotions ranging from eagerness to return to life in the new normal, to fear of a potential second wave of a virus that we still do not fully understand.

Uncertainty and unpredictability can create an unhealthy amount of fear and stress. In contrast, others are experiencing sadness about the loss of things that they have gained during lockdown, such as spending more time with their children rather than spending time commuting to work. The return to strict schedules, early morning alarms, rush-hour commutes and the need to wear something other than yoga pants and hoodies marks a significant change for many people who have grown accustomed to isolating and working from home.

However, with time and practice, we can adjust. Human beings are social animals and we can cope in a crisis by coming together. Our mental health is better when we are at school or work and remain socially connected. Anxiety leads to avoidance, which in turn heightens fear. Therefore, it is important to remember that management for any such anxiety includes returning to the world and interacting socially as much as the COVID-19 guidelines will allow for.

The risks of not working are also under-recognized. Multiple studies show that being off work for a prolonged period of time is associated with increased rates of cardiovascular problems, heart attacks, depression, anxiety, alcohol consumption, illicit drug use and suppressed immunological function, to name a few. Prolonged absence from one’s normal roles, including absence from the workplace, can be detrimental to a person’s mental, physical and social wellbeing.

At the time of writing this article, the community transmission and prevalence in BC and Alberta is low. Occupational health experts agree that under these conditions, when we don’t have a surge of new cases, it’s a good time to return to the workplace.

How can you manage “return to work” anxiety?

One of the first steps would be to find out what your employer is doing to keep up with public health guidelines about safe return to work. Some questions to ask include:

  • Are employees spaced out to allow for appropriate physical distancing? If that’s not possible, are there physical barriers (such as plexiglass dividers) in place?
  • Are masks going to be used?
  • Will employees’ temperatures be checked on arrival?
  • Will your work complete a COVID-19 screening prior to each workday to ensure employees are symptom free?

Infection precautions such as taking each worker’s temperature upon arrival, providing masks, keeping workstations at least 2 meters apart and wiping down surfaces with disinfectant can make everyone feel safer and less anxious.

Employers can also play an important role by providing clear information and compiling answers to some commonly asked questions, such as:

  • What do you do if you’re feeling sick?
  • Whom do you notify if you’re feeling sick?
  • How much sick time can an employee take?
  • What about mental health days or wellness days?
  • What do you do if a family member has COVID-19?

Having easy access to information can reduce anxiety significantly. Offering services such as an employee and family assistance program can also be helpful.

Physical and mental health are closely related. Besides practicing frequent handwashing and physical distancing in the workplace, one should also practice stress-reduction. Something as simple as deep breathing can achieve this. For example, each time you wash your hands for at least 20 seconds, you can focus on doing some deep breathing. Inhale slowly for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 4 seconds and then slowly exhale for 4 seconds. Hold your breath for another 4 seconds before taking another breath. Deep breathing reduces our breathing rate, heart rate, blood pressure and ultimately, our anxiety. Simple muscle relaxation exercises (tightening different muscle groups for a few seconds and then relaxing them) can also be very beneficial.

Incorporating other relaxation strategies is also important. These include relaxation or mindfulness exercises such as listening to relaxing music; taking frequent, short breaks for stretching or conversation with a coworker; or techniques that are available on apps such as MindShift, Calm and Headspace.

One should not underestimate the value of other simple strategies that can reduce anxiety such as getting at least 8 hours of sleep, exercising regularly and limiting alcohol consumption.

Powered with information from your employer and from public health officials, along with simple physical, mental and preventative strategies, we can gain a sense of control that can decrease our anxiety levels related to returning to work. Over time, as these self-care strategies become second nature and with support from others who are experiencing similar adjustments, we will gradually be establishing a sense of new normalcy and comfort.