What Does Returning To Work After Lockdown Mean For Your Mental Health?


If you’ve been working from home for the past few months, or have had to close your business during the pandemic, you’ll likely be feeling a range of emotions about going back to work or opening up shop again. There’s possibly some excitement or relief about a return to some semblance of normal, whatever “normal” looks like in this unprecedented moment.

But you also may be feeling a good deal of worry and trepidation. As well as figuring out the new safety protocols around keeping yourself, co-workers, and those visiting your business, physically healthy, there’s also our mental health to consider.

Returning to work can lead to everything from a dip in your productivity to feelings of anxiety or depression. In this guide, we explore what returning to work means for your mental health and offer tips on how to manage your well-being as many of us begin returning to work.

The Unknown Leads To Worry and Stress

Should your coworkers wear masks? How often will your office be cleaned? Will you readjust to being away from where you’ve been quarantining for months now?

These are just some of the questions that are undoubtedly running through your head as you prepare to return to work. If you’re reopening your business, you’ll have the health of your customers and staff in mind. So it’s important to acknowledge: it’s perfectly normal to feel anxious right now.

“Uncertainty and unpredictability can really create an unhealthy amount of fear and stress, especially when it’s sustained over such a long period of time,” Dr. K. Luan Phan, chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, writes. “Challenges will remain as businesses reopen, and the typical workplace will look very different following this pandemic. We’ll have to find new ways to connect with colleagues and work as a team while maintaining our distance and preventing the spread of infection.”

There’s no benchmark for how people will feel when returning to work, just as lockdown itself affected everyone differently. “Recognize that your fear, anxiety or sadness are valid and something that may be affecting many of us while returning to work,” advises Talkspace therapist Cynthia V Catchings, LCSW-S. “Be respectful of others and their ideas, but most of all, be supportive of your feelings and needs. You are going through a transition process, and just like any other change, it affects us as a loss. Having to readjust to change requires time and patience.”


Going Back To Work Won’t Necessarily Lead to Psychiatric Symptoms

So, feelings of stress, and apprehension are to be expected. But if you’re concerned about more serious effects on your mental health, new research from China might give you some peace of mind. A study published April 2020 in Brain, Behavior and Immunity looked at the “immediate mental health status and psychoneuroimmunity prevention measures of [the] Chinese workforce.”

It concluded that the psychological effects of returning to work during the COVID-19 pandemic are unknown. Just over 10% of the survey respondents suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after returning to work. Encouragingly, however, the survey found that “returning to work had not caused a high level of psychiatric symptoms in the workforce.”

Moreover, “psychoneuroimmunity prevention measures” such as personal hand hygiene, face masks, and workplace hygiene were associated with less psychiatric symptoms. The researchers wrote: “the low prevalence of psychiatric symptoms could be due to confidence instilled by psychoneuroimmunity prevention measures before the resumption of work.” In other words: knowing that your workplace has safety measures in place could support your mental health.


Tips For Readjusting To The Workplace

What can we do to ease the transition back into working life? Ohio’s Department of Health recommends embracing the return to structure: “If you can, try to get into your work routine at home before physically returning — wake up at the normal time, get bathed and dressed as you would normally, and try to return to your normal timeline during the day.”

Sleep is another big one: a good night’s rest can make a huge difference to our mood during the day. CDC guidelines about returning to work also recommend taking breaks from work to stretch or check in with coworkers. Spend time outdoors and do things you enjoy during non-work hours.

Catchings also has a few tips if you’re experiencing anxiety specifically:

  1. Mindfulness. Practice mindfulness exercises like scanning your body from head to toe or listening to the birds or the wind for a few minutes.
  2. Breathing. Look for breathing exercises online and practice them before starting your day, when anxious, and before going to bed.
  3. Visualization. Creative visualization exercises [forming calming or inspiring pictures in our mind’s eye].

Returning To Work If You’re The Boss

If you’re reopening your company after a period of closure, be aware that doing less business than usual can lead to fear or a sense of loss, according to Catchings. “It can affect your finances and your emotional state. Be patient: the clientele will increase in time, and seeing a positive attitude from you will help make them come back.”

You’ll undoubtedly feel a sense of responsibility towards your employees. According to Texas A&M’s Agrilife Research and Extension Center, signs that “someone might 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.” Be considerate of your staff’s needs and remind them of any support you’re making available.

And remember to make time for yourself: “If you debate between emailing / calling clients and taking a 10 min break, remind yourself that you can do both. They are equally important,” says Catchings.

Help Is Always Available

Remember that worry, stress, anxiety, or even depression can be expected when returning to work, and you won’t be alone in experiencing these emotions. Catchings recommends talking to a non-judgmental friend who you trust, or seeking the help of a therapist.

“Remind yourself that you have already gone through changes, and you were able to succeed,” she says. “You have worked from your place of employment before. Your office or business is not unknown territory for you. Be grateful for the opportunity to go back healthy and make the most out of it.” And if you’re still feeling stressed about returning to work and businesses opening up, a licensed online therapist is a convenient and affordable way to work through these anxieties.

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