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Going Back to Work During COVID-19 Finding a New Normal

For many of us, the transition to working at home wasn’t gradual. We didn’t have time to pack up our desks, to tidy up old papers, to throw away our sticky note reminders. While our normal lives were thrown into disarray, our office lives were simply put on pause. As we begin to return to in-person work, stepping back into the office may feel like stepping back in time. A space that once may have provided structure and stability may now seem unfamiliar and uncomfortable. For some, returning to a shared workspace may even provoke feelings of fear and anxiety.

Going back to a familiar space after a prolonged absence may make you feel pressured to “return to normal.” However, for many of us, the old “normal” doesn’t exist. As we attempt to go back to in-person work, we need to replace the idea that we can simply step back into our old habits and styles. Instead, we need to approach our return as an opportunity to find a “new normal” that balances between our old lives and our current needs, and we need to understand that this transition may not be smooth.

The recommendations for maintaining physical health are abundant; however, it is also important that organizations practice sustaining and promoting good psychological health. As we return to a shared workspace, it will be important that we do so strategically, taking steps to protect our teams’ health – both physical and mental. Here are some tips for creating a workspace that promotes psychological health and safety as your team returns to in-person work:

Maintain Open, Positive Communication

Communication regarding the organization’s plan for re-opening should be communicated well before anyone steps foot into the office. In addition to being clear and transparent, it may also be beneficial to consider the language used. When setting goals, language can be approach-oriented (energized toward a positive outcome) or avoidance-oriented (energized away from a negative outcome). Using “approach” language may help reduce unnecessary anxiety. For example, you may say that social distancing measures are put in place to “maintain the health of our employees” rather than to “avoid spreading disease.”

Increase Your Sense of Control

Without having a strict 9-5 schedule, many of us may have fallen out of the normal routine we maintained prior to quarantine. However, following a schedule can help reduce feelings of anxiety. Before transitioning back to the office, it may help to get your mind and body back into a “work routine.” While still at home, try waking up at your normal hour, getting dressed for the day, etc.

When returning back to work, you may also find yourself wanting to adjust your old work schedule to include some aspects you enjoyed while working at home. For example, you may want to build in scheduled breaks to take time to walk outside your office and get some fresh air.

Refresh Your Space

It may feel strange to return to your “normal” workspace when the rest of your life may not exactly feel normal. It may be helpful to give your office a reset. Schedule time on your first day back to clean out your desk – giving yourself a chance to start in-person work again with a clean slate. Changing up your workspace or bringing a new desk decoration may help reduce pressure to “return to normal” and may help you embrace new working conditions and styles.

Take a Case-by-Case Approach

Everyone in your organization will want to approach returning to the office at a different speed. Some people may not yet feel comfortable, while others may be craving the sense of normalcy that can be provided by going to the office. It will be important to not judge the needs of others. Within reason, flexibility should be given to when and how people return to work.

Be Aware of Symptoms of Stress and Anxiety

It is natural to feel stressed and anxious about returning to in-person work. However, these feelings, if intense and prolonged, can have negative effects on our health and well-being. As we return to work, the CDC recommends that we watch for symptoms of extreme stress, such as:

  • Feeling irritation, anger, or in denial
  • Lacking motivation
  • Feeling tired, overwhelmed, or burned out
  • Feeling sad or depressed
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Having trouble concentrating

If you feel you or someone in your household needs additional information or someone to talk to regarding their stress, anxiety, or depression, the CDC Coronavirus webpage has multiple resources.

COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of taking care of our physical health. However, as we transition back into in-person work, we will also need to take care of our mental health. Returning to our pre-COVID workspace may seem strange and may cause feelings of stress and anxiety. Taking steps to mitigate these negative feelings and attempting to replace them with positive thoughts will help protect our mental health and will help us embrace our “new normal.”

By Kelsey Richels, M.S.