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Going Back Into Work? How to Deal With COVID-Related Anxieties

April 26, 2021

A year after abandoning desks and cubicles to work remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, American workers are anxiously preparing to return.

“There’s still a fear of being in close proximity with others in the office and the possibility of infection, even if they’ve been vaccinated,” said Dr. David Tolin, director of the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Institute of Living, part of the Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network.

The increase is not surprising to Dr. Tolin, who cited a “range of COVID-related anxiety” affecting people. Some are not frightened at all and abandoned mask-wearing despite repeated directives from experts to maintain safety practices like masks for now. Then, there are those who remain very, very frightened.

“Most of us are somewhere in between,” he said.

As those working remotely prepare to return to their workplace, he said anxiety can “cloud their judgment” about the situation.

“Anxiety can start you feeling that you have no control over anything in your life, which isn’t true,” he said. “The facts are frightening, yes, but they are not as catastrophic as your anxiety might lead you to imagine.”

To manage anxiety in a “healthy and appropriate way” to return to the workplace, he suggested:

  • Recognizing when you are feeling anxious, and pausing to ask yourself what’s causing the anxiety.
  • Make sure you’re thinking clearly about the situation. There are many things to consider and “shades of gray” that might make you unnecessarily anxious.
  • Have a plan in place for your return. Work with your employer to implement an infection control plan that helps put you at ease about infection risk.
  • Recognize what you can and cannot control. For example, you control such habits as wearing a mask, practicing physical distancing and hand hygiene.

Another helpful approach might be what Dr. Tolin called “graded exposure.” Before going back to the workplace full-time, stop in for a brief visit, then maybe work a few hours or a half day. Easing into your return can help allay any concerns.

“COVID is a very scary illness,” Dr. Tolin said. “Many of us feel some anxiety related to it. The trick is not allowing it to run away with you.”