Returning to work after six weeks under the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown can cause differing amounts of emotions – disbelief, fear and even anger – among workers, much like after a disaster.
But employers and co-workers alike can watch for signs of emotional impact over the coming weeks and months, to ensure everyone is finding their way back to a new normal, said a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service specialist.
When states, cities and workplaces begin reopening, COVID-19 won’t be gone, nor will the concerns that surround it, said Miquela Smith, AgriLife Extension health specialist, Amarillo.
Some workers will gladly head back to their offices and places of business, while others will do so with trepidation, Smith said.
Returning to work
Many Americans with management and professional occupations will be able to continue working from home, while those with service, production and maintenance-related jobs will have to physically return to work, she said.
Employees who can continue to work from home will inherently be at a lower risk of exposure to the virus compared to those who cannot.
This will disproportionately affect Americans with lower education levels because they are less likely to occupy professional and management positions that might allow them to work from home, Smith said.
“Minimizing employees’ potential exposure to COVID-19 must be a top priority,” she said. “The CDC offers resources on their website for businesses and employers to help them prepare to safely reopen. Reopening businesses will come with challenges and people will respond differently to being back at work.”
Some people may have lost loved ones or know someone who got sick, so it will hit close to home, Smith said. Others may have anxiety about returning to work safely; or about finding safe daycare for their children, who are not returning to school. Others will be tired of being at home and will welcome the opportunity to go about life as if nothing is happening.
“Each of our lives have been altered and directly impacted by this crisis,” she said. “Crisis situations affect people differently and just because a person is not responding to the pandemic in the way you think they should, does not mean they are unaffected. Returning to work after a pandemic is new territory for all of us, and we must have patience with ourselves and others while we navigate the process.”
Emotional stress and well-being
Employers and co-workers should watch for signs of emotional impact over the coming weeks and months. Signs someone may be struggling in their return to the workplace include changes in performance and productivity, such as missing deadlines, calling in sick frequently, absenteeism, irritability and anger, difficulty concentrating and making decisions, withdrawal from work activity, and difficulty with work transitions or changes in routines.
Smith suggested employers will need to educate supervisors and managers to be aware of the signs of emotional distress, and to encourage staff to seek treatment when necessary. One program that is offered by AgriLife
Extension, Mental Health First Aid, teaches these exact skills. That program is in the process of being modified so it may be offered on a fully virtual platform soon.