After many weeks of “safe at home” orders, states across the country are all in the process of re-opening – to differing degrees. This means that increasingly those non-essential workers who have been working from home will be asked or invited to return to their place of work. Ideally, workplaces will be creating a plan to allow for adequate social distancing – through decreased numbers of people in any one space at the same time – as well as wearing masks, frequent hand washing and regular office sanitization.
Even with safety measures in place, we are all well aware that the risk of infection from COVID-19 cannot be reduced to zero, an understanding that can increase anxiety. While returning to the workplace will be more stressful to some than others, it is highly likely that many will be nervous about the increased possibility of contracting the illness as safe at home orders are lifted.
People most likely to feel anxious are those at higher risk of serious complications from COVID-19, including those over 60 or with other risk factors such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and underlying illness. Individuals with loved ones in high risk groups may also have fears about spreading the virus to them. At the same time, those who have felt particularly traumatized by the past two months, perhaps due to a loss, someone close to them being very ill, or even a history of past trauma, may be very nervous even if they do not have high risk factors for the disease. People with ongoing struggles with anxiety, low mood, substance abuse, or a lack of social support may also suffer from increased worry about a workplace return as these are all groups at higher risk for anxiety in the face of uncertain danger.
Counting all of these groups together, it is clear a very hefty percentage of people may suffer from fears about going back to work. Some individuals handle fear by being “phobic” which means they try to diminish their ever present anxiety by avoiding the situation that makes them afraid. In the moment, the avoidance brings relief, but that relief reinforces the fear and creates a vicious cycle of avoiding more and more until their world shrinks to a very small, unhappy size. Others may psychologically manage fear in the opposite manner. They consciously don’t acknowledge their anxiety, instead telling themselves they are not afraid, that there is nothing to worry about, and running headlong into the situation convinced there is no risk and nothing can happen to them. This “counterphobic” response means they keep all thoughts of anxiety and concerns about how to protect themselves in their unconscious so they can remain unaware.
In truth, neither of these methods for dealing with the fear of COVID-19 are especially healthy in the long run. Ideally, we are each able to acknowledge the real concerns and risks that face us, then do our best problem solving around them to minimize the likelihood of becoming ill while still easing into the re-opening despite some uncertainty.
Keep in mind that most days we all do things that carry some very small possibility of harm – crossing the street, driving a car, being outside in a thunderstorm. The risk is limited and we’ve decided we can live with these tiny uncertainties. By being aware of the potential dangers and taking precautions like wearing a mask, staying 6 feet from coworkers, cleaning your desk, and washing hands/using hand sanitizer often, you are actively decreasing your risk. Once you have done all you can, deciding to accept a fraction of uncertainty to live your life is a reasonable option. If your place of work is in some way preventing you from doing the kind of problem solving that would minimize your risk, then speak to your employer about how you can make changes.
Having the peace of mind that you have reduced your potential risk to a very small percentage can be key to your mental wellbeing. If you still have a lot of anxiety, coping tools like deep breathing, practicing mindfulness, talking to other co-workers for support, getting daily exercise and the like can help in decreasing those fears. The more you go to work, and exercise your precautions, the more likely your anxiety will decrease as the experience of being at work is a useful method for desensitizing yourself to those fears. Just keep in mind that as you become more comfortable it is still important to continue to be vigilant. Wear your mask, practice social distancing, frequent hand washing and other key measures. Comfort doesn’t mean risk has changed, it means your mind has changed, which is a positive step toward re-opening provided you continue to be pro-active.