Battling COVID Re-entry Anxiety

As I sit here writing this in March 2021, I find myself thinking back to 12 months ago when the world was a hugely different place. The news reports were talking about this new virus called Coronavirus but many of us didn’t have any appreciation of just how serious far this would soon become. Soon the world would seemingly come to a total stop. The streets felt empty, politicians had a look of worry and stress that we hadn’t seen in a generation and working from our homes would become the standard for many of us.

Although we find ourselves here in another lockdown, still working home from and many of our usual haunts closed (some permanently) it can be easy to feel that nothing has changed. But that isn’t true. In fact, a lot has changed in this time.

As individuals, families, organisations and as a nation we are far more resilient. We have found ways of working that we didn’t think were possible and many of us (particularly small businesses) have found ways to adapt and keep going, which at times felt impossible.

We’ve also made leaps and bounds in our handling of the virus, the vaccine rollout is at full steam ahead This time last year we would have looked at hand sanitiser, masks, and screens as extreme but now they are the norm.

And we even have the prospect of returning to some sort of normality, which for many of us means returning to our offices, dusting the cobwebs off, retching at the unfinished cup of coffee, saying hi to some familiar faces, meeting the new faces and returning to some kind of routine.

While this may be a positive step overall, for a lot of us, it may feel similar to returning to work after a long holiday or time off sick. And this can feel less positive.

It’s normal to feel a certain level of apprehension and anxiety when returning from that 2 week holiday, but this time it hasn’t been 2 weeks, it’s been 12+ months. And it hasn’t been a holiday, it’s been a worldwide pandemic. So, multiple that 2-week anxiety by…well… a lot!

As employers, we have a responsibility for the duty of care of our employees, and this includes their mental wellbeing. If you haven’t already started, now is a great time to start putting steps in place to make this return to work as easy and stress-free as possible. And on the other side of that coin, as employees, we owe it to ourselves and those around us to do our part.

Learn to spot the signs

Often, we don’t realise it but when we’re down, stressed, anxious or agitated we give off clues. Spotting these clues doesn’t require a psychology degree or several years at medical school. Often, it’s just being aware of others and taking a few extra moments to pay closer attention to them. Are they:

  • More isolated from others?
  • Tense, angry or disruptive?
  • Overreacting to seemingly small problems or issues?
  • Constantly talking about what worries them or generally being quite negative?
  • Having difficulty concentrating on things?

I could go on but in essence, they’re just not their usual self. Or maybe it’s you who’s noticing this about yourself. We often miss it in ourselves because it’s a gradual process so we don’t see any difference. A bit like losing or gaining weight (which incidentally is another sign), when it’s us the changes are happening to, it’s harder to see.

Mental health awareness workshops, webinars or mental health first aid courses are brilliant for this and it’s why I dedicate so much time to causes and signs on my courses because they’re essential tools in helping ourselves and others.

Keep open lines of communication

People don’t like to be kept in the dark about things. Even if it doesn’t directly involve their job role, most of us like to be kept in the loop so we can see the bigger picture. This is especially true when it comes to managing expectations. Does everyone know exactly what the plan is? Are they coming back in, sitting down, and carrying on as normal? Or is there some kind of process for easing them back in? Maybe even a mini induction process? Either way, does everyone know this?

What measures have you got in place at work? Do people know about these measures? You might assume that everyone knows about PPE, physical barriers and distancing measures, but do they?

For the sake of an email, a phone call, or a leaflet, it’s worth it to get everyone on the same page and that their individual return is acknowledged.

Who do people speak to?

Is there anyone trained in COVID safety measures and aware of the steps taken that can field questions? Is it one person in the organisation or one per department? Is there any kind of focus group to collect and address questions, concerns, and complaints?

If someone feels they’re struggling with returning to work, who can they speak to? Their line manager or HR might be great. But not every organisation has a supportive culture and maybe having other people trained in mental health first aid at all levels (including execs) is a smart way to go (hint: it is!).

Carry out stress risk assessments

Are they boring? Yes.
 Are they a legal requirement? Yup.
Do they send a positive message to the workforce that you take their wellbeing seriously? You get the idea.

The HSE expect workplaces to carry out detailed stress risk assessments and update them regularly. This means that creating one or updating your current one when returning to work after a global pandemic is kind of a given.

To make things easier on yourself take questions and concerns that people have expressed about returning to work and look at what measures are in place currently or what steps you could put in place to negate these concerns. After that, put yourself in the position of a person from each department, what stress does their job entail, again, what can you do to reduce or even negate that stress?

Talk!

Quite simply, we won’t know what people are thinking or feeling unless we speak to them. Some people might be really open with how they’re doing, others less so. But if we can create an environment where people feel comfortable to talk openly, share their concerns, questions or even ideas and know that it won’t come back to bite them then you’re off to a great start. A simple, informal 1-2-1 chat in which each person allows us to set this supportive framework and create an initial opportunity to share anything they want to share.

And the biggest bit of advice I can give here? Is listen. Just genuinely listen to what they’re saying. Try to understand how they’re feeling, what they’re trying to get across and what they feel would help.

As much as I cringe when I hear the term ‘the new normal’ mentioned because it’s so over-used, that’s exactly what this is. Things will never be exactly like they were before, in many ways that’s a good thing but not for everyone and adjusting can be hard for many. Whatever this new normal may look like, it’s going to go a whole lot smoother if we band together, accept that we all react differently and have each other’s backs.

If you would like to learn more about how I work with organisations to create, implement and maintain workplace wellbeing drop me an email at Pete@PeteWhiteConsulting.co.uk