The ongoing pandemic has impacted us in different ways and transformed our way of living and interaction. Just as we were getting used to working from home, and staying away from crowds, we now must return to work and adapt quickly to yet another new “normal” filled with uncertainties, causing back-to-work anxiety. Back-to-work anxiety could be presented as various signs and symptoms.
- Physical: abdominal discomfort, shallow breathing, increased heart rate, cold sweat etc.
- Cognitive: excessive worries, negative thinking, inability to focus etc.
- Emotional: fear, low mood, irritability, panic etc.
- Behavioural: checking behaviours, substance use such as alcohol, drugs etc.
Before circuit breaker was lifted, an informal poll conducted by the editorial team for My Mental Health website among 314 participants highlighted several concerns about returning to the office. The top concerns were related to anxiety on various matters ranging from wearing of masks to taking public transport to not being able to lunch with colleagues*. The poll results highlight the importance of understanding and attending to the mental wellbeing and psychological safety of employees who are returning to work in the new “normal”.
Uncertainties about the new “normal”
We may feel anxious about returning to work in the new normal that holds many unknowns. Uncertainty causes anxiety and anxiety is uncomfortable to deal with. Hence, we try to avoid anxiety by thinking of what could happen in the future, to seek some clarity and assurance. While worrying and uncertainty are in-built into each of us, we are at risk of overthinking and overgeneralising the situation. These can be unhelpful and cause undue stress, affecting our mental health.
With the safe distancing measures so deeply ingrained into many of us, some of us may feel uncomfortable just by having someone stand near us as we have learnt over the past months that it is not safe to stand in close proximity to others. A sense of paranoia may result in an atmosphere of fear and anxiety about the right or safe way of social interaction with our colleagues when we return to work.
Loss of familiarity with colleagues
Returning to work, we may also experience an unfamiliarity with our colleagues, having been apart from them for so long and having to keep a safe distance from them when we meet them again. Humans are social beings. As we return to work, not being able to interact with our colleagues in the familiar ways like having meals or drinks together in groups more than 5 are losses that we will face and we grieve over the losses. Being unable to engage with our colleagues like before may leave us uncertain of how to respond and hence creates anxiety.
Anxiety about getting infected by the coronavirus is normal. As we return to work, our exposure to others and hence risk of infection increases. Health anxiety may make us worry about travelling by public transport or being infected by asymptomatic colleagues whom we spend hours together with at work, having been confined in the same space, despite the social distancing. Similarly, health anxiety may also arise due to the discomfort of wearing a facial mask for the whole day. Back-to-work anxiety is real, but it can be managed.
Below are some strategies to address back-to-work anxiety:
It may sound counterintuitive but the way to deal with uncertainty is to embrace uncertainty. When we become comfortable with uncertainty, we will try not to avoid anxiety and hence feel less anxious. One way to do so is to focus on the present and continue to do whatever we are doing at that moment. If we are walking, we continue to walk and focus on our walking. Over time, our brain will learn that uncertainty cannot hurt us, and will feel less anxious about uncertainty.
3 Cs: Catch, Check and Change
When we find ourselves anxious, we catch the thought by identifying the thought that makes us anxious. We then check that thought with TLC (True, Likelihood, Consequences) by checking if the thought is true, its likelihood of happening and the realistic consequences if it ever comes true.
To cope with the new norm when we return to work, we must acknowledge that there will be some changes at the workplace. As we go through the changes, we can make sense out of the experience and focus on the possible gains. We can re-think the COVID-19 pandemic as a shared emotional experience that binds us and our colleagues instead!
Take the necessary precautions
We can manage our anxiety by taking precautionary measures. Masking up in public, washing our hands regularly, avoiding touching our faces and keeping safe distances can reduce risk of transmission. Engaging in precautionary measures provides us with a sense of control and reduces our anxiety level. If we feel that more can be done at the workplace, we can talk to our colleagues and if needed, raise the issues as a team to our bosses. COVID-19 is contagious and there are reasons to be worried. Our colleagues may be sharing the same worries as us.
Anxiety is normal as we return to work amidst the uncertainties. If your level of anxiety becomes too high and uncontrollable such that it results in distress, impairs your ability to function in your daily roles and responsibilities or affects your relationship with others, seek help immediately. There are many resources and support available to address your back-to-work anxiety including:
- Online self-help mental health resources and links to other support programmes and services that can be found here
- Viriya Counselling Helpline – Tel: 6256 1311
- National Care Hotline – Tel: 1800 202 6868
The contributor is an Executive Director and Senior Social Worker at Viriya Community Services.
Article has been edited to reflect current COVID-19 restrictions.