Returning to the workplace: Managing mixed emotions and uncertainty

Returning to the workplace: Managing mixed emotions and uncertainty

by Samir Deshpande
Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch

COVID-19 has brought radical change to our society—for nearly two months, many of us have been working from home, limiting trips outside and keeping ourselves socially distanced.

Now, as states begin to consider how to re-open and find a new normal, the ability of leaders to ensure that staff feel comfortable with the transition becomes increasingly important.

“Over the past several months, we have all experienced so much change,” says Col. Deydre Teyhen, commander of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. “Leadership will be key to a successful transition back to the workplace.  Just as leaders have taken steps to help smooth the transition to widespread telework and social distancing, it is important to take steps to ease the transition back into the workplace.”

Some employees might be excited to return to the workplace and re-engage with their previous routines; others might feel apprehensive, either because of anxiety about infection or becoming accustomed to their new routine—many will feel some combination of the two.

What Can Leaders Do?

The first step is to recognize that experiencing mixed feelings is normal.

“Leaders should be patient and remind their teammates to prepare themselves for an adjustment,” says Amy Adler, director of the WRAIR’s Research Transition Office, which bridges the gulf between laboratory and field to get research advances into Army training.

Furthermore, as most re-openings are expected to be gradual, for some teammates, normal may not feel normal. Compounding that, many may feel concerned that there will be a resurgence of the disease.

“Difficulty adjusting back and ongoing concerns are completely understandable—it’s important for leaders to recognize and validate these feelings, and to make a plan for how the team will address changing circumstances,” says Adler.

Setting clear expectations, both for leaders and for teammates, and establishing contingencies in the case of a return to strict social distancing can help address these worries.

Finally, it is important to honor the accomplishments of the team while they were away. Mark the milestones you have shared, tell your team’s story to create a shared narrative and acknowledge individual contributions to the team’s mission.  It is important to recognize with gratitude the entire team’s effort to stay safe and productive—whether they worked from home or remained in the workplace.

“Ultimately, it comes down to keeping an eye out for one another—we know our teammates," says Col. Jeffrey Thomas, director of the WRAIR Center for Military Psychiatry and Neuroscience.  "Both leaders and team members are well positioned to observe signs of stress like increased irritability, conflict with co-workers, lack of motivation or mistakes on the job. Teams can work to alleviate stressors and listen to people who might be struggling with yet another transition.”

More information about strategies developed by Adler and RTO researcher Ian Gutierrez to help manage returning to the workplace can be found here. A list of other resources to manage COVID-19-related behavioral health concerns can be found here.

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