March 28, 2022 -- Like millions of Americans, Ken Todd, a 53-year-old marketing executive in New York City, left the office when the pandemic took hold and set up shop at home. Now, he is preparing for the return, planning to board the subway once again for his commute into his company's workplace.
It's time, President Joe Biden told the nation in his March 1 State of the Union address, to "fill our great downtowns" again, saying that people should feel safe to return to offices.
Not everyone shares that sentiment, and the reasons are many.
Todd isn't resisting, but he admits that he is "approaching this with cautious optimism." The former marathon runner has long COVID after becoming infected in January 2021, before vaccines were available for his age group in New York City. His energy level is nowhere near what it used to be. He's dealing with a long list of symptoms, including a balance problem that makes him feel seasick if he looks at a computer screen too long.
Others bristle at the suggestion that they weren't actually working at home and need constant supervision. As one worker tweeted: "Not to yuck anyone's yum, but why are so many people who are really excited to get back to the office so bothered by those of us who are doing just fine working from home? I mean, I'm clearly working. But folks are bothered. What is it?"
Said another: "Can journalists retire the phrases 'return to work' and 'back to normal' from their work?" noting that people have been working and that “back to normal” is a terrible phrase to use.
Others say they will have trouble giving up the work-life balance that was better when working from home, even with pets and children crashing Zoom meetings.
Clearly, the return to workplaces won't play out as "normal" as it was before the pandemic, doctors and mental health experts say. But employers and workers can take steps to increase safety, reduce the chances of on-the-job infection, and tamp down anxiety.
First, do a "gut check," suggests Susan Albers, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic. "When they ask you to go back, what is your first gut response? Is it, 'Great!' or is it, 'No'?"
Then, she says, try to figure out why your response is what it is.
It may be the way you're wired, at least partially. In general, she says, her patients who are introverts "loved being at home. Extroverts really struggled."
But many workers, faced with the inevitable return to the workplace, will likely have to make the best of it and try to feel some of Todd's "cautious optimism."
In a recent study, researchers polled more than 3,900 people who worked from home during the pandemic. They found that those facing the prospect of returning to their workplace soon, compared to those whose return was not immediate, were more optimistic about infection risks linked with returning to their workplace and more pessimistic about risks linked with working from home.
The researchers suggested that "motivated optimism" was at play. They defined it as people downplaying future risks to manage their anxiety.
Others, including Todd, are trying to avoid infection or reinfection.
"I can't afford to get sick again," he says, not after months spent learning how to manage his long list of symptoms. Besides the balance problem and overwhelming fatigue, he had brain fog, which is now improving, and heat intolerance, making New York summers unbearable. He's taking part in a post-COVID-19 recovery program and wants to continue moving forward.
Assessing Individual Risks
Before returning, workers should assess their medical circumstances, those of their household, and their risk tolerance, says Leana Wen, MD, an emergency doctor and public health professor at George Washington University in Washington, DC.
"If everybody in their house is fully vaccinated, boosted, and generally healthy, the risk of severe illness due to coronavirus to them is extremely low. On the other hand, if they or someone in their house is immunocompromised, elderly with chronic illness, and already medically frail, that's a different determination," she says.
It's also crucial to assess your personal tolerance of risk, Wen says.
"Many will say at this point that they value the return to pre-pandemic activity so much that the risk of contracting coronavirus, especially if they are vaccinated and boosted, is outweighed by the benefit of normalcy,” she says.
But "there are others who worry about long-haul COVID and the potential of giving COVID to others," she says. "That is why people should determine what is best for them, given their medical circumstances and their assessment of risk."
For those concerned, especially if they are returning to an office where masks are not required, she advises continuing to mask. One-way masking with a high-quality mask -- N95, KN95, or KN94 -- offers excellent protection, she says.
Keep in mind how much vaccinations help. People vaccinated and boosted are three to five times less likely to be infected with the coronavirus, compared to those unvaccinated, she says.
As for safety, she says, employers should tell workers what kinds of precautions they have in place. If they don’t, you should ask so you can decide what precautions you should be taking.
Guidance for Employers
Employers can turn to a variety of sources to help them keep employees and the workplace safe -- and workers can also find that guidance online.
The American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) has issued general and industry-specific guidelines. The group offers recommendations on testing, quarantining, and vaccines, says Tanisha Taylor, MD, chair of the organization’s Return-to-Work Work Group.
The National Safety Council offers SAFER, Safe Actions for Employee Returns, a task force to help employers create safe post-pandemic workplaces. In May 2021, the council released guidance to employers on vaccine policies, ventilation, flexible schedules, and other issues.
In surveys done between June and August 2021, with responses from 300 employers and 3,785 people, the council found:
- The number of vaccinated employees rose by 35% if employers required vaccination.
- Consumers prefer to go into businesses where workers are vaccinated.
Employers who apply vaccine requirements across their workforce can achieve a level of "community immunity."
The surveyors also found that most workers did not want to return to in-person work.
Employers can ease concerns by keeping workers posted about precautions. Todd praises his company for "doing a good job in preparing us" and encouraging vaccinations so strongly that most of his co-workers are also vaccinated. Even so, he says, "I've already told my colleagues I will be wearing an N95 mask in the office."
Easing back into a routine, if possible, can help, experts say. Todd's company will follow a hybrid schedule at first, keeping some days as work-from-home.
While some in-office activities may be mandatory -- an all-company meeting, for instance -- workers can determine if they have an option, for instance, to take part by phone from a separate room, Wen suggested.
Even if workers must go to an all-company meeting in person, they can choose to skip the crowded cafeteria at lunch, she says.
And "you don't have to go to a happy hour at a bar shoulder to shoulder with people," she says. "It's OK to say no, especially in optional situations."
Some anxiety comes from general uncertainty about what the return to "normal" will involve, says Cheryl Procter-Rogers, an executive coach in Chicago. Lately, she hears anxiety from clients.
"One said to me, 'How do I know that the person across the board room table is vaxxed?'” she says.
That's one of many situations that workers will need to figure out how to handle, she says.
Some anxiety stems from career or lifestyle issues, Procter-Rogers says, such as indecision about whether to go back to their jobs, especially if it means giving up some of the perks people enjoyed at home.
Some clients told her they had gotten used to turning to their partners in the middle of the workday and suggesting a quick walk break.
"Those opportunities really deepened the relationship," she says. "Some are wondering if they want to give that up."
Whatever the source of the anxiety, simple things like physical activity can help, Procter-Rogers says. "It's also really important people have someone they can talk to," she says, whether a friend, spouse, coach, or therapist.
Reaching out for help works, as Todd has found. He joined a grassroots education, research, and advocacy group for information and support. He was valued the help it provided so much, he asked how he could give back.
"They said, 'The best thing you can do is tell your story.'" So he does. "It helps my mental health and it helps my optimism," Todd says.