Re-entry anxiety is a form of stress associated with the fear of being unable, or not wanting to re-adapt to previously established routines and environments – e.g. going back to ‘normal’. This can be in relation to a return to work or a return to a previous way of living. Many of us will feel relieved and excited to embrace life after COVID-19. Yet a proportion of us are feeling overwhelmed by the uncertainty of the ‘new normal’.
Even though we are re-entering a previously familiar environment, it’s not simply a matter of picking up where we left off. Many people will experience a rollercoaster of emotions. There may be periods of joy, which then give way to anxiety and panic. Re-integration will lead to different experiences for all of us.
Business Leader spoke to Brendan Street, Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing at Nuffield Health regarding this topic.
So, what steps can employers take to help relieve symptoms of re-entry anxiety?
Environment. Employees may be worried that they’ll encounter the virus on their commute, or even in the office. Where possible, make reasonable adjustments. These may include accommodating remote working and putting unnecessary travel on hold, particularly if there are known cases in your area. This will become essential if known cases are announced in your company.
Protocol. Sharing actionable steps on how employees can protect themselves will help rationalise the issue. Make sure company health protocols are clear and accessible. This means keeping staff informed on the steps you’re taking as a company, as well as giving advice.
Language. Be aware of how your language can impact people’s perceptions of the situation. According to The Journal of Positive Psychology, diagnostic terms should be avoided when it comes to discussing health concerns.
Staff who continue to show signs of distress should be guided towards further emotional support. It may be that anxiety around coronavirus is a noticeable sign of pre-existing or wider emotional struggles.
What can employees do to help the re-entry phase?
Notice the emotions you are experiencing. Thoughts can have a direct and immediate impact on our feelings or emotions, and on our behaviours. Events or situations don’t cause anxiety or distress, it is our interpretation or beliefs about events/situations that leads to an emotional response. If you can identify the ‘hot’ thought connected to the emotion then you can decide if you need to adapt or adjust.
Self-care. What have you started doing during the pandemic that has been of benefit? That might be going for a run at lunchtime, eating more healthily or getting a good night’s sleep. Make sure you maintain these as you return to work.
Pace and compassion. If you’re returning to the workplace, be sure to plan your day ahead. Test the route in advance, talk to your manager about any concerns you have earlier rather than later. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, check to make sure that you are practicing self-kindness and compassion.
Inside-Out. Don’t let unhelpful thoughts and ‘What-ifs’ multiply inside your head. Get thoughts out. Identify a re-entry co-pilot in the workplace – someone you can bounce thoughts off. Research has shown that we are more able to manage change if we verbalise our thoughts.
The impact of COVID-19 on all our lives should not be underestimated. It is useful to prepare for a turbulent re-entry. Expect a ‘wash cycle’ of emotions from distressed, confused, agitated, hopeful to excited and back again. The techniques above will limit the disruption of re-entry.
Most importantly, remember that it’s OK not to be OK and seeking help and support is both adaptive and normal.