I was recently asked to come back to work in a martial arts studio where I serve as a part-time instructor. Over the past several months, the studio has published policies outlining new guidelines for health and safety in response to the COVID pandemic. For example, they have implemented a more rigorous cleaning process, including wiping down door handles and surfaces multiple times throughout the day. They have also provided readily available hand sanitizers and wipes for all.
The studio created a webpage and circulated newsletters with updates on their new protocol so that everyone knew what to expect upon returning to the facility. I thought they did a good job of reassuring everyone about the precautions they had taken and of communicating their intentions and expectations.
However, I received a call from a student who was very anxious about returning to the facility. I did my best to alleviate her concerns and even added a few extra precautions I would take in my class. However, as I had not been to the facility yet, I could not speak from firsthand experience - and I admit that I had some concerns of my own.
When I returned to the facility for the first time, I found that the studio owners had done everything they had promised to promote health and safety. However, as a workspace planning professional, I immediately saw other low-cost precautions that could be taken to reduce the risk even further.
While they were on top of cleaning and social distancing, they were not as aware of touchless features like foot controls for doors and hands-free devices to turn door handles. I shared some of my observations with management, and they were very open to my suggestions. They are actually in the process of implementing several of the changes I recommended.
Overall, this was a good experience with an employer that communicated frequently, set up clear policies and procedures, and was open to suggestions for improvement. Even so, going back to work can - and in this case did - generate feelings of anxiety.
For months we have heard about the risks of coronavirus and have been asked to take somewhat drastic measures to avoid contracting and/or spreading the virus. Now many of us are being asked to return to the workplace. How do we know it is safe to do so?
Questions to Ask Your Employer
Let’s start by acknowledging that going back to the workplace is a risk. There is no guarantee that you will not contract the virus. If you are going to return, you will need to accept this risk and trust that your employer is making employee health and wellbeing a top priority.
Hopefully, your employer is communicating with you about the steps they are taking to protect employees who are coming back to the workplace. If not, here seven key questions to ask your employer:
1. What has been done to sanitize the workplace and to make it as germ-free as possible?
2. What has been done to make the workplace as touchless as possible?
3. What personal protective equipment (PPE) should you use?
4. What social distancing measures have been put into place?
5. Are there procedures in place to control traffic flow as employees enter/exit the building and proceed to their individual workspaces?
6. What guidelines are in place for equipment or other items employees bring from home?
7. Are there policies in place to stagger arrival and departure times, as well as rules for using common areas, like break rooms?
If your employer has reasonable answers to the above questions, they are likely thinking through the situation and are well prepared. But even with proactive communication and reasonable answers, you may still have anxiety about returning to work. This is natural.
It’s one thing to know about the policies and procedures but another thing to experience the workplace firsthand. It’s also natural to be concerned about what could go wrong when dealing with a virus. If you have anxiety about returning to the workplace, here are a few guidelines:
Reach out to your manager and discuss a schedule for coming back to the office. This should not be an “all-in” approach to returning to work. Ask for permission to work from home longer. Start with just a day or two a week in the office and see how it goes.
As you see that your workplace is promoting safety and adapting to meet the circumstances, you will start to build confidence in your employer’s dedication to keeping employees safe. If your telework arrangement is working well and you are able to be productive, you could even negotiate a longer-term arrangement.
If the anxiety of being in the workplace is overwhelming, try listening to soothing music or recorded tracks on apps that promote mindfulness. Such activities can “coach” you to be in touch with your thoughts and feelings and to address them in a way that will keep you calmer and more relaxed. The more relaxed we are, the better we are able to make decisions.
Another calming technique is “box breathing” - promoting calmness by exhaling for four counts, holding for four counts, inhaling for four counts, and holding for four counts – and then repeating this cycle. This technique is said to be used by Navy SEALs to help them stay calm during intense combat situations. It can also help anyone manage emotions and think more clearly in stressful situations.
Think Through Your Routine
If you were a rock climber, you would need your ropes and other equipment, and you would pick a safe route to climb up a cliff face. Think of the office in the same way. Make sure you have your necessary PPE (mask, gloves, hand sanitizer, etc.) and plan a route that will get you into and through your workplace as safely as possible.
There is no need to rush the process - take your time to ensure your safety while progressing into the office and performing your work. If the thoughts are overwhelming, perhaps try a safety checklist that you keep on your smartphone to remind you of the actions you can take to stay safe.
Ask for Help
If the anxiety of returning to work is too overwhelming, ask for help - just like the student described above who called me to discuss her concerns about returning to class. She also raised some good points about safety that I had not considered.
Help can take many forms, such as friends, family, coworkers, managers, and/ or a mental health professional. During the coronavirus pandemic, we have all been through a lot – feelings of isolation, concerns over our health and the health of those we care about, financial impacts for many, and a seemingly endless barrage of negative news reports.
Attempting to push through anxiety on your own may lead to longer-term consequences. Getting help can better enable you to manage anxiety and can provide you with coping strategies and skills that will ultimately help you be more productive at work.
Returning to Work is a Process
Returning to work should not be a one-size-fits-all event - it is a process. We are all unique and our path back to the workplace should reflect that we do not all have the same level of comfort or risk tolerance.
I have heard the disgruntled grumblings of acquaintances who have been mandated to return to the office. I believe employers are making a mistake in many of these cases. As long as the work is getting done, employers should allow flexibility for when and how employees return to the workplace. It is my hope that the above suggestions will help employers and employees be better prepared for a safe return to the workplace.