While I was interviewing for jobs during the pandemic, the very first question I asked was: “What are your plans for going back to the office?”
The answer was always: “We don’t know.”
As vaccines have rolled out and infection numbers dropped, I’ve found myself suddenly faced with conflicting emotions I wasn’t expecting.
I was relieved that things seemed to be getting better, but I had a looming sense of dread. I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to go back to an office.
It wasn’t just that I wanted to skip the commute, the long hours under fluorescent lights, and that colleague who was always a little too interested in everyone else’s business.
The truth was: I couldn’t quite let go of the fear.
After over a year of being afraid of getting too close to someone, I couldn’t quite trust that things were truly going to go back to normal.
A Live Career survey reported that 29 percent of employees are prepared to quit if their companies revoke their ability to work from home, and 62 percent say they’ll give preference to employers who offer remote work for future positions.
Even vaccinated people share similar feelings.
A survey by the American Psychological Association found that 48 percent of people who are vaccinated feel uneasy about returning to in-person interactions.
“Many of us had painfully adjusted to new routines, including working from home, simultaneously providing childcare, overseeing online schooling, and developing virtual social, familial, and work relationships,” says Erin Engle, PSYD, an assistant professor of medical psychology in psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center.
“Despite this stress,” Engle says, “some found unexpected positive rewards in working from home, which included closeness to family, increased productivity, and convenience.”
Part of the problem is that there’s still a lot of uncertainty about the future. It doesn’t help that there have been frequent changes to the safety guidelines as scientists learn more about the virus and more people become vaccinated.
To help you feel more comfortable going back to the office, experts weigh in on what you should know about keeping yourself safe, both physically and mentally.
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The CDC still hasn’t changed their guidance, but the contradictions between WHO and the CDC are confusing at best.
In many places, mask mandates have been lifted based on an honor system. You’re supposed to still wear your mask if you haven’t been vaccinated.
This can spread mistrust and ill will between employees.
“Unfortunately, the honor system works only to the extent that all involved are honorable,” explains Philip Tierno, professor of microbiology and pathology at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine. “If a worker is suspicious that a fellow worker didn’t get vaccinated, they can still wear a mask.”
“Trust is low at the moment,” says Adam Mandel, PhD, a clinical psychologist at NYU Langone Health. “With the pandemic, we can’t see the virus, we can’t see who’s infected with the virus, [and] we can’t see if it’s on us or if it’s around us. It’s very hard to just trust others with your life.”
Not everyone feels comfortable taking their mask off, and that’s OK. It may take you a while before you feel totally safe without a mask, even after your vaccination.
To be safe, you may want to keep a mask or two in your bag or at your desk — and always abide by local and office mandates.
“Surface transmission is more minimal,” Tierno explains. “But you can still spread [COVID-19] by touching a contaminated surface, then touching your mouth, eyes, or nose.”
The solution is simple.
“Even though it’s a lesser means of transfer, wash your hands often — especially as you contact things that have been touched by other people,” he continues. “That is the smartest thing you can do.”
Plus, washing your hands will protect you from other bacteria and viruses and keep you healthier as a whole.
Wipe down your desk if that makes you feel more comfortable, especially if you work the second shift or share a desk.
“If there are people who are in the office before you, you can clean your desk, because there may have been some aerosol transmission,” Tierno says.
Alcohol wipes or disinfectants should kill any traces of the virus on surfaces.
With new variants emerging, sanitizing is still going to be a good idea for a while.
Physical distancing and avoiding large crowds is something you might want to do if you have an unvaccinated family member at home, like a young child.
It will be awhile before we know whether vaccinated people can infect unvaccinated people with the new variants.
“It’s instinctual to protect those we love, especially when loved ones are vulnerable,” Engle explains. “For parents during the pandemic, those living in multigenerational households, or who have a medically vulnerable individual within their household, it’s an instinct to protect by limiting risk.”
You can limit risk by taking the same precautions you have from day one.
“Crowds are a perfect environment for super-spreading because crowds may possess people who are vaccinated, who are not vaccinated, and others who may be carrying the virus unknown to them,” Tierno explains.
Since vaccines aren’t 100 percent effective, opt to avoid large gatherings or wear a mask in crowded or tight places.
Fresh air improves air circulation, lessening your chances of getting infected.
If you have the ability to open a window or door in your workspace, take advantage of the opportunity.
A breeze can help prevent air from getting stale and recycled, providing ventilation and reducing risk of virus transmission.
Many employers are requiring employees to get vaccinated before returning to the office.
In fact, on June 1, 2021, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) said it’s legal for companies to require vaccines for all employees unless they have a medical dispensation.
If your employer requires the vaccine, going back to the office will be much safer. You can also ask your employer if they plan to implement other safety procedures.
For example, many employers are:
- spacing desks 6 feet apart
- capping large meetings
- disinfecting surfaces and shared equipment
- investing in ventilation systems, such as air-ionization
Asking your employer about their safety procedures can make you feel safer, and it can guide your decisions about what safety measures you want to keep up on your own.
Some people are really excited to see each other in person. This might result in unwanted handshakes and hugs.
Here’s the thing: It’s OK to say no to physical touch. No one should touch you without your permission, pandemic or not.
If you’re feeling uncomfortable, make a plan for what feels safe and comfortable for you. Then, tell your colleagues in a kind but clear way.
“Clear communication is key in helping coworkers — even family or close friends — to understand your needs around safety and personal boundaries,” Engle says. “It can also be helpful to remember that someone else’s limits and boundaries may not be the same as our own.”
Try to be nonjudgmental when you bring up the subject, she says, and “remain open and curious to understand someone else’s current boundaries, point of view, or limits.”
It can also be helpful to avoid accusations and instead, use “I” statements to explain how you feel and why your boundaries are important to you.
For example, Engle says you could say: “‘I know it’s tiring to wear a mask, but I have a loved one at home who hasn’t yet had the vaccine, and I’m worried about my loved one’s well-being — even though I’ve been vaccinated.”
After over a year of surviving a global pandemic, some of that anxiety is normal. It can be hard to readjust to what life was like before, even when things start to get better.
It’s a little analogous, according to Mandel, to service people going off to war and coming back.
“When someone flies off to war, they fly off to a very different environment, and they train extensively for that environment,” he continues.
“They’re told over and over and over again, as they learn these new behaviors, that if they don’t do this, they and their teammates and their friends may die or become seriously injured. They’re training their brains essentially to engage in a series of behaviors to keep themselves safe.”
When those troops come home after their deployment, they often have a challenging re-entry process.
“There are all these markers that things are changed — the people sound different, the language is different, the smells are different — but the behaviors they learned don’t just retreat right away,” Mandel explains.
In some ways, according to Mandel, we’re all going through something similar as we emerge from the pandemic.
“We were going about our lives, thinking everything is fine,” he says. “But, overnight, we started to feel unsafe… just like the soldiers returning from war, this chronic activation of the amygdala and the safety behaviors have been so ingrained that it’s hard to set them aside.”
In other words: The fear we have and the safety behaviors we learned aren’t going to go away overnight. They’re going to stay until we individually feel safe and ready to let them go.
If your employer isn’t implementing any safety procedures, you’re justified in having concerns.
If you suspect someone is lying about their vaccine, if an employee is repeatedly ignoring your requests not to be touched, or if your employer is not enforcing any safety procedures, you’re within your rights to say something.
“It’s the obligation of employers typically to meet basic occupational and safety concerns,” Mandel says. “Anyone who’s concerned, I would encourage them to speak up and speak out often, preferably to someone in management or in human resources who can help them address their concerns.”
It’s important to know that it’s most likely legal for your employer to require you to return to the office and fire you if you don’t.
If you genuinely don’t want to return, you might need to evaluate whether you can afford to leave or lose your job.
For many Americans, that’s not an option. If you’re in this position, your best chance is to look for a new job before your return-to-office date.
However, you can still try to negotiate an arrangement with your employer that makes you more comfortable.
You can ask your employer if they’re open to a hybrid or extended remote work schedule, especially if:
- You did a great job working from home over the past year.
- You’re unable to find suitable childcare or are a caregiver for an at-risk family member.
- You have a pre-existing condition that puts your health at risk if you return to the office.
In some cases, you may be legally entitled to these accommodations. Check with your Human Resources representative to learn more.
When someone feels powerless over their physical safety and continues to feel powerless for so long that they start avoiding certain behaviors, according to Mandel, they’re at more risk for developing a trauma-related disorder, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The pandemic was an event that made many people feel powerless.
“No one walked over to their local health department and said, ‘I’ll have a pandemic and a side of fries,'” Mandel says.
After a traumatic year, some of us are feeling re-traumatized by the fact that we’re being told we have to go back to work.
“When we are told by a power larger than ourselves — like a corporation — that it’s time for us to return to work and we have no say in that, it echoes the powerlessness that we’ve experienced during the pandemic,” Mandel explains. “That can be destabilizing.”
According to Engle, some warning signs that your anxiety about going back to work may be a cause for concern include:
- being so preoccupied with your fear of COVID-19 that you can no longer socially function
- experiencing extreme avoidance
- having trouble getting out of bed
- having difficulty caring for yourself or dependents
- not being able to work or complete school tasks
- experiencing an increase in substance use or misuse
- having suicidal thoughts or behaviors
If you’re really struggling with the idea of going back to an office, or if you’re feeling anxious and depressed, it’s best to reach out to a medical professional or mental health expert as soon as you can.
In many ways, going back to the office is a sign that the worst of the pandemic is likely behind us. If you’re unhappy, scared, or anxious about returning, know you’re not alone.
The truth is: You can take steps to protect yourself and mentally and physically prepare for what’s next.