Anxious About Going Back To Work? That Makes Sense — We’re Still In A Pandemic

by JR Thorpe
A woman looks out the window of a bus wearing a face mask. How To Handle Anxiety About Going Back To...
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As states and cities start to open up after months of coronavirus-induced lockdown, your days of working from home might be coming to an end. It's understandable if you feel your anxiety levels rising whenever you contemplate stepping into the elevator at the office, especially since coronavirus cases aren't under control in many parts of the country. Going back to work after COVID-19 may be an entirely new experience. And that can make anybody feel unsettled.

"Work places are opening up, but nothing is the same," Joshua Klapow Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, tells Bustle. There are all kinds of reasons to feel fear or concern about returning to your job after working from home or not working for months, he says. People might fear getting sick or being exposed to COVID, and worry that their workplace and responsibilities will be unrecognizable after so long at home. It's also common to worry that other people might not act responsibly when it comes to hygiene, Klapow says. (Consider Karen from Accounting's inability to cover her mouth when she sneezes.)

The idea of encountering a sea of masked faces in the workplace could also feed anxiety. "Masks are essential to get businesses back up and running," Mark Frank Ph.D., an expert on non-verbal communication at the University of Buffalo who works with mask producer Vistaprint, tells Bustle. But masks can make people feel unnerved and isolated, because they obscure facial expressions and make it harder to read others.

Months at home may also have changed your expectations and abilities when it comes to the workday. "People may fear that they will dislike being back in the workplace relative to home," Klapow says. This is pretty understandable, because there's not much chance your boss will let you work in pajamas or take five snack breaks per hour.

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Your anxiety is justified if your area isn't quite safe for returning to work just yet, especially if there's a rise in cases in your local hospitals. "That means that there are more serious cases and that we may be up against the limits of healthcare system capacity," says infectious disease specialist Dr. Rishi Desai M.D. If you're feeling anxious about whether your city or town is heading out of lockdown too soon, he says, pay attention to the public health department. Do they believe that they can administer enough tests, and do they have contact tracers in place for coronavirus cases? If the answer is no, talk to your boss about staying remote for a while longer.

Some employers are embracing flexible work more permanently as a result of these concerns. If you live in a state or city where case counts are rising again, you may want to raise the possibility of staying out of work for a while longer, particularly if you live with a high-risk person. Under the American Disabilities Act, working from home during the pandemic may be a right for people with pre-existing conditions that may make them vulnerable to COVID-19. The Library Of Congress has an guide to federal and some state legislation, while Justia has a compilation of U.S. law for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Be proactive about your fears, Klapow says. "Talk to your employer about what the safety protocols are, and what you need to do to stay in good standing and thrive," he says. "Talk to your co-workers. There is a very good chance that at least some of your fears are their fears." Sharing these anxieties with management and those around you will enable you to feel less alone, and will also help create action plans to make you feel more comfortable.

If you're feeling a lot of anxiety about returning to work, try not to downplay it. "Acknowledge it instead of trying to deny it, to say it’s not happening or there is no reason for it. Simply accept and own the fear," Klapow says. "Write down exactly what you are anxious about and make it as specific as possible." If you're anxious about mask-wearing, think about it as an act of care. "When we wear them we send two clear, distinct, social signals: that we are looking out for each other's health and that we are all in this together," Frank says. Even if you can only see the eyes of your coworkers, you're all taking measures to protect one another, and that's pretty amazing.

Anxieties about your own health can be addressed outside of work, too. "Stay healthy, wash your hands, social distance, and maybe develop a routine for cleaning your clothes and showering as soon as you get home," Klapow says. Look for techniques and rituals that can make you feel more in control, and give yourself time. "As routine begins to set in, anxiety has a way of fading," Klapow says.


Dr. Rishi Desai M.D.

Joshua Klapow Ph.D.

Professor Mark Frank Ph.D.