How to handle the anxiety of returning to work in a pandemic

Date: September 15, 2020

Do you return to work and potentially risk catching or spreading COVID-19, or do you face the risk of a layoff, eviction or some other financial calamity? This is the surreal choice all too many Americans are faced with as the CARES Act expires and businesses struggle to stay open. It’s anxiety-inducing to say the least, particularly when you consider not everyone believes that face masks are necessary, or worse, think that the pandemic is a hoax.

According to LinkedIn’s Workforce Confidence Index survey, 75% of respondents working in retail are concerned about being exposed to others who aren’t taking pandemic safety seriously, as are 73% of folks in entertainment and 71 percent of respondents working in education.

Recognize that your fear is valid

The first step to dealing with fear is recognizing its truth.

“We must begin by recognizing that this internal fear is valid,” explained Dr. Robert W. Amler, dean of School of Health Sciences and Practice at New York Medical College. “Just like you cannot tell someone their shoulder doesn’t hurt, you cannot tell someone they aren’t afraid. And the biggest fear is always the fear of the unknown — when you’re not sure exactly what you’re up against, and you have no idea how far it will go or how long it will take. In this case, we are all up against a crisis and we do not know how it will resolve.”

Know the 4 W’s

Once you’ve validated your concerns, it’s time to get extremely clear on what you do know about the COVID-19 and how to best stay safe. Amler calls these the four W’s:

“Wear your mask; wash your hands; watch your distance (minding the six-feet apart rule) and then walk away, meaning don’t stay in clustered groups for long periods of time,” said Amler. “If people are careful about what they do and [follow] those four W’s, we’ve got a good chance of being able to reopen and keep our staff reasonably assured that everything possible has been done.”

As the LinkedIn survey reveals, people aren’t only anxious about returning to work in a pandemic, they’re anxious about returning to work in a pandemic wherein not everyone is following safety protocol.

5 Ways to cope with the anxiety of returning to work

  1. Think about how you react to stress

    • Take a moment to determine how you react to stress; do you get headaches? Shortness of breath? An upset stomach?
  1. Plan ahead to reduce anxiety

    • Carry hand sanitizer with you and take other precautions that help you feel safe.
  1. Talk to your manager and co-workers

    • Before you return, talk to your boss, manager, coworkers or HR. Ask them about your company’s plans regarding employee safety and health.
  1. If you see something, say something

    • Let your employer and coworkers know how you are feeling.
  1. Use breaks to destress

    • Take a 10-minute meditation break during the day to focus and ground yourself.