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Return to Work: The Fear Within

Over a year ago, the World Health Organization declared the spread of the COVID-19 virus a global pandemic. With that announcement, the whole world changed. The New York City-based think tank found that 40 percent of employers shifted to remote work at the onset of the virus in the U.S.

As cities begin to open around the country due to the success of the vaccines, people who were working remotely or even those who are collecting unemployment, are apprehensive about returning to work. And now, as the pace of the vaccine rollout quickens, many people who have been fortunate enough to work from home are experiencing new anxiety: the fear of returning to work.

Covid-19 vaccines may not eliminate an employee’s anxiety. Not every employee is eager to return. Granted, there may be those who say they are making more on unemployment. Most people are even reluctant to give up their remote work setups. They may even have some hesitation around what it looks like to return to work. But the reality of it all is that businesses may be ready to reopen, but many employees aren’t there yet. People may also feel that they must choose between their health and livelihood. Or simply said, choosing between life and death or a paycheck.

Commuting into work is something else that may contribute to one’s anxiety. Once a mindless daily routine, now may feel foreign and risky. Risky could be that ride on the subway to get to work and the rise in assaults on the trains. Let’s be real. The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted virtually every aspect of American life, but the longest-lasting impact may be on our mental health. American adults continue to suffer negative mental health impacts related to worry or stress from the pandemic.

Return to Work: What Can We Expect?

With social distancing restrictions beginning to loosen, employers must understand where their employees’ pain points are. Staff where I work, are requesting reasonable accommodations left and right because of safety and health concerns. A recent survey conducted by global human resources consulting firm Mercer surveyed 735 U.S. employers, more than 45 percent said they are already struggling with workers who are reluctant to return to their workplaces because of fear of getting sick. 

With the return to work, employers convey new guidelines and safety protocols to ensure a safe and smooth transition back to the workplace. Employers must prepare employees for reentry, especially about behaviors that will have an impact on co-worker safety. Something to note is that as workers return to the workplace, we could see tension arise between employees with different approaches to the virus and the transition back. I’ve been back in the office since November 2020, and one of my co-workers refuses to wear a mask. He said he is not going to sit in the office for 7 hours with a mask on. And to show more nerve, he doesn’t even stay at his desk. He goes to other people’s areas, talking to them at length without a mask. How rude, selfish, and thoughtless can a person be? It’s people like him who flames the fire of fear of returning to work.

The Fear Within

Fear manifests itself differently in different people. Employers must consider that some of their employees may be worried about their aging parents they’re unable to see face-to-face; or are overwhelmed because they’re juggling childcare and work. Then there’s fear about economic security. And, back to probably the biggest fear–contracting the virus. Responding to employees’ fears means thinking through these scenarios and coming up with alternatives. A possible solution for someone who is afraid of traveling on the subway or bus, they could be allowed to come in later when there’s less of a crowd.

Employers can’t manage people’s fears–but they can support them. Employers can’t eliminate those fears, but they can and should encourage their employees to be honest about what they’re feeling. Employers must keep the workplace informed, connected, and safe. Listen to what they are saying. Then, give them clear, transparent communication about what you know, what you don’t know, and what is being done within the organization to lower the risks for staff. I would recommend employers conduct daily or weekly check-ins with staff, keeping safety, health, and their wellness as a priority.

For the most part, I enjoyed working from home, but after a while, I felt like I was going a little stir crazy from lack of physical human interaction. Working remotely may have its advantages, but there are also disadvantages. While some people may enjoy crowds, others do not. I believe that all people need some level of social interaction. There is a kind of universal benefit to contact and social engagement, even if it is just a one-on-one interaction. Returning to work for me, despite my concerns with traveling, is a good thing.

The Return

Now, what can you do to cope with the dilemma of returning to work? You can practice mindfulness techniques. It’s a good time to do that and be in tune with how your body is feeling. Practice self-care and wellness while slowly adapting to what socialization looks like for you and what it looks like for you in your workspace. If you can’t do everything exactly as you did pre-covid, don’t beat yourself up over it. Breathe. Practice positive thinking. Know that you’ve made it through. You’ve survived a physically, mentally, and emotionally trying ordeal and you’re still standing! That should count for something. Release the fear within and use your newfound strength to help get you through the distress and anxiety of returning to work. Continue practicing safety and return to work with confidence!

June Coxson

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