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

The first step to dealing with fear is recognizing its truth.
TODAY illustration / Getty Images

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

Dr. Nina Vasan, MD, founder & executive director of The Stanford Lab for Mental Health Innovation, explained that “more than half [her] patients who are returning to work have expressed pretty significant anxiety about it.” Here’s what she recommends:

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?” said Vasan. “Paying attention to this can help you identify it for what it is, and then use that as a cue to engage in anxiety-relieving exercises like deep breathing.”

2. Plan ahead to reduce anxiety

“Carry hand sanitizer with you and take other precautions that help you feel safe,” said Vasan. “Anticipate common scenarios and decide ahead of time how you are going to handle them, so that you aren’t having to make decisions on the spot. This planning can help ease the anxiety around returning to work. This includes your commute to work, how you’ll interact with co-workers, what your workspace will look like, how you’ll eat during the day, etc. A little planning goes a long way in reducing anxiety.”

3. 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,” said Vasan. “This will help you to feel more in control, which decreases anxiety. Also ask what flexibility there is around returning to work.”

Be mindful about the likelihood that your co-workers may also be feeling anxious — but not showing it. “Do your team a favor and be the first to bring up your anxiety, and talk as a team about how you will address and support each other through this next phase,” Vasan said.

4. If you see something, say something

“Let your employer and coworkers know how you are feeling,” advised Vasan. “If you see something that makes you feel unsafe, bring it up in an open and respectful manner. If you feel like you aren’t being heard, speak with a designated point person at your company who is handling these issues.”

5. Use breaks to destress

“Take a 10-minute meditation break during the day to focus and ground yourself,” Vasan said. “Deep breathing helps calm and center you, it’s been scientifically proven to decrease anxiety, as well as help improve things like mood and productivity. I download the meditation apps Calm or Headspace.”

Use this moment as an opportunity

COVID-19 is traumatizing because it’s essentially “a psychological earthquake,” explained Dr. Bradley T. Klontz, Psy.D., CFP, founder of the Financial Psychology Institute, and associate professor of Practice in Financial Psychology at Creighton University Heider College of Business. “Trauma eradicates that fantasy that you’re safe and you're left to try to figure out how to make sense of this. But there is an opportunity for post-traumatic growth.”

In a sense, you want to try and grow out of your anxiety, rather than be frozen by it. To kick off that process, Klontz recommended taking an almost entrepreneurial interest in your environment and to ask yourself throughout the day “what is the opportunity here?” The answer to that is entirely subjective, but “there is always an opportunity,” said Klontz. “If your work situation is so horrible that you can’t think of an opportunity of any kind, then what you learn is that you need to get out of that situation. Additionally, remember that we’ve been [afflicted by pandemics] before. It’s all just part of the human experience — we’d just been really lucky for a while.”