Safety Leader

Returning to Work Post-Pandemic: Dealing with stress, anxiety and change

Published On
Aug 12, 2021

Almost half of the U.S. population is vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the centers for Disease Control and prevention, so a return to the workplace is inevitable. Many in the construction industry were required to be on job sites throughout the pandemic. However, there may be apprehension or anxiety regarding a full return to normalcy and it is important to understand these feelings to best navigate them in the workplace.

During the pandemic, many workers were forced to work remotely or change their routines to minimize physical interaction with others. Making modifications to how people operate in a professional capacity can be taxing and creates stress and anxiety. People are once again being asked to flip a switch and return to the old way of business.

People are experiencing record levels of stress, anxiety and mental anguish, and returning to on-site work can add to these feelings. Many unanswered questions about the future linger. Will there be extra precautions taken at the office? Will everyone need to be vaccinated? Will there be flexibility or a slow transition back to normal? What happens if things get worse? Nobody really knows. 

Not to mention, people have different feelings about the virus itself. Some employees will be scared of contracting COVID-19 and passing it to others, while others might not be as concerned. 

Additionally, mental health experts anticipate some people will experience social anxiety when returning to work as a result of extended isolation and the deterioration of social skills. Returning to work may also result in a sensory overload for some. Meanwhile, other employees are excited and want to get back to the office as soon as possible.

Employees feeling anxious or stressed should step back and acknowledge that they are not alone. Their colleagues are experiencing the same things, although people deal with pressure differently. Employees need to be patient with themselves and others to avoid internalizing any negative feelings. Eating right, getting enough sleep and exercising regularly will help benefit overall mental health. 

Once back in the work environment, maintaining a clean, orderly work area will help workers alleviate stress. Talking to co-workers can be extremely helpful and reassuring while navigating the stressors together. If anxiety builds, employees should stop, breathe and recenter. Workers should avoid coping with these emotions through use of drugs, alcohol or prescription opioids. 

According to “An Epidemic in a Pandemic,” a report from the National Safety Council, “We’re all living in a shared reality right now where anxiety and stress are higher than any time in recent memory. One of the byproducts of this has been an increase in use of intoxicants and addictive behaviors of all types, including alcohol, marijuana and online gambling. Opioids are following the same trend. When someone has a substance use disorder, that substance is their go-to ‘solution’ or coping mechanism in times of stress.”

In the event that anxiety associated with change becomes overwhelming for any person, they should seek help from a mental health professional. 

“Managing the Stress of Returning to Work After COVID-19” is a fact sheet for supervisors published by the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress at the Uniformed Services University, Bethesda, Md. In addition to facilitating their own return to the office, supervisors face such challenges as re-establishing routines and schedules, defining new goals and tasks, establishing workplace safety procedures and addressing uncertainty and worker questions about policy and procedures. 

Patient employers should build an adjustment period into a return-to-work plan, such as by gradually increasing the number of days workers have to be in the office versus working from home. Employers must be clear in their messaging to employees and share all information regarding new policies, timing, transitioning, expectations, etc. In fact, they should overcommunicate with staff in these areas. 

Additionally, employers may offer mental health resources, which may include making mental health self-­assessment tools available, providing depression screenings or mental health evaluations, and offering health insurance that covers antidepressants and counseling. Employers may even provide training for supervisors to help identify the signs and symptoms of stress and depression.

For far too long, mental health has been neglected for fear of being taboo. It’s time that changes. There is no shame in getting help

About the Author

Tom O'Connor

Safety Columnist

Tom O'Connor is safety and regulatory affairs manager for Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Reach him at toconnor@intecweb.com.

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