Back to the routine: how to resume face-to-face work after the pandemic

As this is an exceptional situation to which we are not accustomed, the return to “routine” may be perceived differently by each person. Perhaps this new “routine” is not what we are used to.

For some people, returning to their job after an ERTE is probably a relief. The same may be true for those who have been teleworking and did not have a comfortable and adapted environment.

However, the return to work “physically”, after so long teleworking, like any change in our life, can also produce anxiety or even fear. Basically, it is a fear of the unknown or of uncertainty. Will I be in a safe environment? Does my commuting pose a danger to me or my family because of the possibility of contagion? What new protocols will I have to follow in the company? How will my job change?

What can facilitate the adaptation to face-to-face work?

On the part of the company, for example, providing a safe environment (distances, ventilation, use of masks, hygiene, etc.), well-defined work protocols, flexible working hours (for example, alternating days of physical presence with teleworking according to the needs of the worker, etc.). The aim is to reduce the levels of anticipatory anxiety about having to go to an unsafe workplace that could put our health and that of our environment at risk. It may also be advisable to return to work progressively to facilitate a certain adaptation time for the worker.

On the part of the worker, it is advisable to use the hygiene and safety measures that we already know, such as the proper use of masks and hygiene.

It is important not to anticipate. Anticipatory thinking is often very dangerous if only negative things are anticipated. Almost always what we anticipate is usually worse than what finally happens. See the positive side of returning to work as a motivator.

Do not put unnecessary pressure on yourself at the beginning. Everyone needs time to adjust. Probably the rest of your colleagues are the same. Surely things can be done to make the work of colleagues more pleasant. If necessary, you can share your own concerns with others. In this way you will see that you are not alone and that your case is not unique.

Keep in mind that every day that passes is one day less to reach a certain level of normality. This situation is not eternal, although sometimes it may seem so.

What can returning to work mean psychologically?

There are two possible options. The first is positive, and would be the beneficial consequences of returning to work. For many people this will be interesting and motivating. For example, people returning from an ERTE see the possibility, at last, of getting their job back, interacting again with their colleagues, feeling useful and competent, occupying their time productively and getting out of the routine of COVID thinking. It can also be for people who were exhausted by teleworking.

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At the opposite extreme are people who perceive the return to work as negative and threatening. In this case it is a stressful reality that leads to a fear response and, consequently, increased anxiety. They may suffer from symptoms such as shortness of breath, palpitations, concentration problems, stomach disorders, etc.

Thus, we can face a stressful situation:

  • If it is considered a challenge, it can be motivating, if the person perceives that he/she has the necessary personal resources to face it. In this case, he/she will mobilize all his/her resources and generate feelings of efficacy and confidence.
  • If it is considered a threat, the person understands that he/she does not have the tools to face the situation or the problem. This will provoke negative feelings of helplessness and, therefore, anxiety.

How will psychology help the patient?

It will depend on each particular case and how the return to work affects the person. However, in many cases psychological therapy focuses on psychoeducation on stress control, as well as on the symptoms produced by anxiety. The aim is to make the person aware of the consequences of stress and the need to learn how to regulate it. For example, learning to manage our inner dialogue and anticipatory thoughts from a rational rather than an emotional perspective.

The patient should ask himself:

  • Does this situation pose a threat to me?
  • To what extent does it harm me?
  • How can I deal with it objectively?
  • What resources do I have?
  • What is the positive side of all this?
  • How can it benefit me?

It is also important to know how to set aside time each day for leisure and physical exercise, in addition to a good diet, since all this contributes to the generation of endorphins, dopamine and serotonin, which provide us with a certain feeling of mental well-being.

If the return to work still causes emotional discomfort that is difficult to manage, you can always ask for help from a professional. There are very efficient and effective therapies to deal with it and they do not require an excessive number of sessions.