Managing COVID-19 Return to Work Anxiety

Jul 23, 2020 | Coach's Questions

Return to work anxiety is not unexpected, given the ongoing uncertainty about the COVID-19 virus, increased outbreaks in some areas of the globe and the financial strain faced by many. 

We’ve talked about how leaders can help their team members transition back to work, but it’s not necessarily any easier on those of us in leadership roles.

As I mentioned in our previous employee anxiety blog, last week I surveyed readers and clients about what kind of leadership challenges they’re facing currently and we got an overwhelming number of responses. 

One takeaway from our survey is that many leaders are feeling caught between what their own leaders want and what their staff want. Many of you shared that you’re not feeling comfortable returning to work right now, but are tasked with bringing your teams (who are anxious and apprehensive!) back into the office and we shared with you what one of our readers told us of their situation.

Logistical planning isn’t a guarantee

Return to work anxiety is exacerbated by the unknowns. We’re putting measures in place to keep people as healthy as we can, but then we see that reopening in some areas has resulted in increased outbreak numbers and a return to lockdown measures.

Psychological strain is perhaps the one constant throughout this pandemic. If it’s not worrying about your health or the health of those you care about, it’s figuring out how to cope with social isolation and managing grief and anxiety. Compounding all of that distress is the unknown.  How long will this last? Will there be another wave? 

It’s important to take care of your own mental health and anxiety as you lead others through this challenging time. Here are some strategies to help leaders cope:

Check how you’re feeling a couple of times a day

Stress and anxiety manifest in each of us in physical ways. When you’re distressed, how do you react? It might be that you feel unease in your gut, your chest goes tight, you breathe rapidly and shallowly, you get knots in your neck or back or you feel the tell-tale pressure in your head of an impending migraine. Stress and anxiety are normal, physical responses to the body’s alarm system — but we need healthy ways to cope with them and noticing when they are occurring is a key first step.

If you take a few minutes morning, noon and night to quickly assess how you’re feeling physically, you can then identify if you’re holding tension and worry in your body. If you can, close your eyes for a moment and mentally walk through your muscles and body from head to toe. Clenching your jaw? Relax your facial muscles. Muscles taut? Stretch and do some deep breathing. Stomach upset? Meditate and calm yourself with some yoga or rock out to some loud tunes to release that nervous energy. When we can counter the physical symptoms, we also help to alleviate the emotional anxiety. 

Focus on what you can control

It’s really hard not to think about the worst-case scenarios as you lead your team after the initial crisis (especially when you’re the one in charge of planning for the worst and hoping for the best!). Many of you probably have team members who share their worst fears, so if you were more optimistic you’ve got some doubts now, too.

When dealing with a crisis, it’s hard not to worry about the worst that could happen. But it doesn’t have to be either the best or the worst, it could be (and likely will be) somewhere in the middle. 

It’s helpful to focus on what we CAN control rather than what we don’t know. First, of course, follow your federal and local public health advisories and stay abreast of their latest evidence-based recommendations. Different stages of reopening call for different guidelines and limitations.

But you can also work on other things in your control. Your company wants people in the office? Perhaps you can control how many at once, or alternate days. Does your boss want people back so you’re able to serve the public? Then maybe frontline staff with plexiglass dividers will fill the need without everyone coming back at once.

And, while we can’t ensure no one will get exposed to this virus, we can wash our hands and remind staff to do this regularly — BIG signs on the back of the bathroom door, emails every once in a while, supply hand sanitizer bottles all over the office — perhaps one for every staff member working — adapt the seats in the break room so that people can gather and talk but still stay 2m apart, and offer masks and face shields for those who have to come in.

And remember: If you don’t know the answer right away, that’s okay. You can reach out to someone with expertise and get advice, then report back to your team members. Staff regularly report in surveys that they have much greater appreciation and admiration for a boss who says, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out” (and then, does) vs. a boss who offers up their best guess or ignores a query.

You can’t control everything, but you can control how you react

It’s possible you’ll encounter folks at work who don’t feel the same anxiety about being back — maybe even your boss(es). Just as you need strategies for teams returning to work, you also need strategies for things that will help you feel safe. 

Some other things that may help you feel more in control could include keeping hand sanitizer in your pocket, bag and desk. You could set up hand sanitizing stations for guests and have disposable masks ready for visitors or clients who don’t have their own. If you encounter someone like a client or a boss who won’t wear a mask, you can be prepared to either excuse yourself or find out ahead of time which room has windows that open or that allows for adequate social distancing (or take the meeting outdoors!).

As a leader, you could implement other policies to help you and your team feel safer in the office. We’ve heard that some workplaces have established “zones” for visitors and “zones” for employees only. Some other workplaces require staff members bring their lunches with them so there isn’t increased exposure from people coming and going from the office to eat out or pick up food during the day. Now is the time for us as leaders to recognize our own concerns, learn what concerns our staff members have and then raise these with senior leaders, sharing them with diplomacy and empathy.

Minimize other outside stresses when possible

It sounds simplistic, but returning to work is already stressful so do what you can to make other aspects of your day a little calmer. 

Make sure you get adequate sleep on work nights (say no to Netflix!) and get up early enough that you’re not rushing out the door. Get into the habit of packing your lunch and having everything ready for the morning before you head to bed so that you don’t waste time searching for clean socks or the work file you absolutely have to bring to work.

Some folks also choose to listen to an uplifting podcast or soothing music during their commute to work rather than listening to the news. 

Find things to look forward to

It’s not easy to have an attitude of gratitude during a pandemic or crisis, but it is possible. Make sure that your schedule includes things that make you feel happy. 

This can be simple — like breakfast with your partner, walking the dog or calling a good friend to chat. It could be a weekly massage or daily workout. What’s important is that it’s something you do that is for YOU and not for anyone else. Maybe it’s as simple as getting up a bit early to savour that first cup of coffee with no one bothering you, or puttering in the garage on Saturday. Self-care is time to recharge and put your well-being first.

Some experts suggest that if you’ve developed new routines during lockdown, like cooking an elaborate meal or doing yoga or playing video games, that you continue this in some way after you return to work because there is comfort in routine.

Reach out if you need support

While we know the terrible effect that this pandemic can have on people’s physical health, the United Nations warned that it also has the potential to create a “major mental health crisis” as people face anxiety after anxiety. 

As leaders, we need to be mindful of our own emotional health and mental well-being. If you are feeling overwhelmed or suffer from chronic insomnia or anxiety, reach out to mental health professionals through your employee assistance program or extended health benefits. The Government of Canada has created a fantastic portal with mental health resources you can use anonymously and I’ve found a number of them to be quite helpful.  Click here to access them. (And if you’re not in Canada, you can still access the resources).  As well, most Canadian provinces have provided some programs too and you can access those here.

If you need help as a leader right now, please reach out to us at Padraig. We’ve created a quick, short and less expensive coaching package for immediate assistance. Instead of our usual starting package of 12 sessions over six months, we’re offering help right now at a special rate for 3 hour long conversations with one of our executive coaches — it’s private, confidential and personalized. We want to help.

Padraig Coach’s Questions:

How are you feeling about the return to work? What can you address and what is out of your control? What can you do better or differently to protect your own mental health and physical health right now?