What To Do When Your Workplace Reopens But Going Back To Work Still Feels Scary

Doctor of Clinical Psychology By Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy
Doctor of Clinical Psychology
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach who received her clinical psychology doctorate from University College London. She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, Business Insider, and elsewhere.
What To Do When Your Workplace Reopens But Going Back To Work Still Feels Scary

Workplaces are opening around the world—after all, we cannot stay in lockdown forever. But we know the coronavirus lurks within our communities, and anyone could be asymptomatic and therefore a carrier. You're not wrong to feel unsure or unsafe about going back to work.

Here are a few precautions you can take going back to work and how to ask for accommodations to protect yourself.

Maintain your proactive health and safety habits.  

Those habits you picked up or intensified over the last few months—from hand-washing to carrying sanitizer to wearing masks—keep doing them. In closed spaces with little ventilation or airflow, viruses transmit faster.

To make wearing a mask all day more comfortable, I add a drop of cloves essential oil. It helps me breathe better. Additionally, cloves are used in some ancient cultures as a way of protecting against viruses and a reminder of our boundaries.

More practically speaking, invest in your own cleaning supplies, from wipes to sprays to antibacterial cleaning solutions. Wipe your surfaces down every day, from your keyboards to phones to computers. Having a cleaner isn't enough because the same implements are being shared across the office. Don't put your bags on the floor ever, as we step in and out of toilets and other places, and we often absent-mindedly also put our bags on our kitchen tables.

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Continue avoiding unnecessary contact with others. 

"Try to avoid public transport as much as possible or at least at peak times," performance coach Vanessa Bennett advises. Companies are staggering people's work times, so you can request that.

I know you're probably missing your work family—those shared meals and chit-chats in the pantry—but keep it to a minimum, or none at all. Enforce social distancing as best you can. And instead of meetings at each other's tables, call each other's extension numbers or video-call within the office as much as possible.

Not everyone around you will adhere to these precautions, so also be prepared for knowing how to tell people to keep their distance. Remember: You have permission to have boundaries, and you can enforce them graciously. Have the right scripts ready.

For example: "For now, I'm not comfortable being too physically close with anyone outside my household. I'd like our interactions to be [insert expectations]. What do you think?"

Adding the last sentence invites a conversation rather than sounding dictatorial.

Keep your immune system healthy.

"We have to bring it all back to chronic stress. If that's what you're feeling, your immune system will go down," says Bennett. 

Essentially, any form of chronic stress is not good for you. The strength of your immune system—both physical and psychological—is the reason some of us travel often and never fall sick and others catch illnesses too frequently. 

In addition to supporting your immune system physically, come up with a game plan to protect your psychological immunity. Remember that when stressed, your fear center hijacks your higher brain. Making any decision from that state is unwise. To get your calmer prefrontal cortex back online, shuffle your feet on the floor to ground yourself. Then, take three deep breaths, making sure that when you breathe in, your belly is filling up with air and not the other way round. When you're breathing correctly, your focus is automatically on the air filling and leaving your nose, lungs, and belly, and you have no attention to think of anything else. 

Finally, make sure you sleep enough. If your sleep is understandably poor during these tough times, some things I recommend to clients are no devices, television, or computers an hour before bedtime, even if you have a blue light filter. Make sure your bed is only for sleep and sex, not work. Have a ritual every night, such as journaling, showering, or taking care of your skin, that your brain will associate with "time to sleep." And do not sleep with your phone. Most of all, be patient and celebrate every improvement you have in your sleep. That will pay dividends. 

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Understand your fears. 

You're not the only person with fears. Your colleagues will likely have the same fears.

The way to handle your fears isn't to pretend they don't exist—that'll only work temporarily and haunt you with a vengeance. You must face them.

Start with writing them out. Set a timer for this exercise just to make sure you don't get lost in the worry rabbit hole. Questions you can ask yourself, first, are:

  1. Is this solvable?
  2. Is this controllable?
  3. How realistic is this?

That will help you weed out some of your fears. 

Get clear on what your vulnerabilities are. For instance, if you have preexisting medical conditions, or an anxious personality. Or if someone in your household is young, old, or has compromised health. This will make a strong case for communicating your concerns to your workplace if you feel it's necessary.

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Negotiate your workday.

Ask HR or your manager what provisions they have regarding COVID-19 and what options they're providing for your mental health and productivity during these times.

Make it a conversation that's open to negotiation. Fundamentally, you need to be solution-focused rather than complaining or drowning in the impossibility of the situation. At the heart of it all, we need to create a win-win-win solution. One that works for you, your boss, and the organization. 

For example, if you want to work from home more—whether during peak hours or for a few days a week—a negotiation strategy is to tell your boss how much more productive you are in that context. It could be due to fewer interruptions, a familiar environment, or the fact that you're not having to worry about the virus; cite those. Your boss will want to know how and when they can contact you, especially if you work in a culture where there is traditionally less trust, more micromanaging, and a lot of oversight. So here's where you assuage their fears by building in accountability. Book in protected times where you'll check in with each other, get clear on the team meetings you'll be present for in person or virtually, and propose that this arrangement is open to review. 

Or, you can propose a reframe in terms of projects and KPIs rather than looking at the number of days or hours you're actually working. This is what's allowing some countries to consider the four-day workweek, for example. Such a reframe keeps us accountable and gives us more time to replenish ourselves; consequently, we can become more productive and have more creativity. We are also more present and purposeful in our work. 

Fundamentally, your task is to figure out what you can do to make life easier for everyone. It requires some planning, so take that seriously. Then reap the rewards.

This transition can be stressful, but remember you, your co-workers, and your community are all in this together. With collaboration, we can come up with creative solutions that keep us all safe and healthy.

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