As we slowly re-enter the new norm of our world, some people are more than nervous, they are panicked. Everyone is worried or anxious to some degree about what lies ahead. More so about the possibility of being not only getting infected, but infecting others unknowingly. This fear and re-entry anxiety has become so evident it could be considered the new disease, especially within many organisations in our economy. An essential early step will be effectively addressing the anxieties of millions of employees who’s fear about their future, careers and their health surpass their abilities to be productive. It has been expressed that many also fear re – adjusting to a faster pace after months of slowing down in lockdown.

Re-Entering our New ‘Normal’

Returning to previous norms may not be entirely possible, however returning to workplaces and common social interactions and practices is inevitable. An online survey conducted by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), during the first few weeks of lockdown, which included views of over 1 200 participants, revealed that most (65%) of people felt stressed. SADAG is a non-profit organisation and the country’s largest mental health support and advocacy group.

Although this is a natural reaction to an unnatural situation, employers must help their employees understand and manage their re-entry anxiety. Irrespective of government announcements and health guidelines, employers and employees will need to understand how to reopen and how to implement policies and procedures in the workplace that ensure safe environments for all.

While returning to work is a positive indicator, health professionals are cognisant that there is still a long way to go before defeating the virus. The disruption to work and social routines has been incredibly difficult for many. Unfortunately, the pandemic will continue to disrupt our lives for the foreseeable future and we need to prepare for it.

Preparing for the psychological impact of returning to the workplace

Returning to work after a prolonged absence can cause re-entry anxiety and distress in the unknown. Anxiety is your brain’s or body’s response to stress that can be triggered by a multitude of things. The stressor can be real or imagined or a perceived threat. Although anxiety is a near universal at the moment, it is a completely normal reaction to an unnatural situation.

There are several types of anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, and phobia-related disorders. People with the most common type of anxiety disorder, GAD, spend an excessive amount of time worrying about a number of things.

With Re-Entry Anxiety, it is specific to worry about re-entering your community, job, or school after a pandemic quarantine due to the fear of becoming ill. The fear of becoming ill if they leave their home is overwhelming and can result in physical, behavioral, or emotional distress. Psychologists recommend that employers ease uncertainty by giving each employee control and decision-making power over where, how and when they work.

What Are Signs and Symptoms of Re-entry Anxiety?

Just like most mental health issues, the symptoms of Re-Entry Anxiety can be physical, behavioural, or emotional.

  • Physical symptoms can include: shortness of breath, chest pain, panic attacks, sweating, nausea, and racing heartbeat
  • Behavioural Symptoms can include: avoidance, becoming upset when others close to them re-enter after quarantine, difficulty sleeping, irritability, a general change in behavior
  • Emotional symptoms can include: worry, mood fluctuation, anger, emotional upset or tearful

Organisational leaders can look to psychology for strategies

It is imperative that managers assist employees to feel less apprehensive about returning to the office and more optimistic about the office environment. Many companies will need to enhance current practices, supplementing their Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) mental health programs with a greater capacity to deal with stress, anxiety, and uncertainty at work. Building greater internal awareness and support of sensitivity toward our current situation and ability to address employee concern and ability to be productive.

Productivity management: The reflex is to exert greater control, but the solution is more flexibility.

In a crisis, it’s natural to panic and to grab the one thing we lack: control. But the core madness of anxiety is that it tricks us into using its very sensations — the racing of our hearts, the hysteria of our thoughts and the tightness in our throats. As evidence that we should make decisions that ultimately lead to more problems.

The concern about performance is warranted, but managers and HR leaders should pay attention to any reflex that tightens the grip — and actively consider its opposite. Instead of over-investing in process and micromanaging schedules, leaders would be wise to consider a strategy that is far more flexible than feels comfortable for them as well as their employees. Many are finding themselves making decisions they never thought they would have to, in situations we thought we would never face. There has been no ‘correct’ way of managing this crisis within any business, other than doing your best.

Implement public health measures to sanitise the Workplace Regularly.

Research shows that over 51% of the workforce fears that they will get infected at work, and further infect their families when they go home. Many employees have felt a larger sense of ‘commitment’ from their firms, when extra precautionary measures are implemented at work. Fewer than one in 10 would feel safe returning to the office when only their employer says it’s safe, which is why you need to aid that ‘safe feeling’ with crisis management.

Implementation of crisis management should include :

  • Extensively clean and sanitize work areas
  • Encourage sick employees to stay home and institute flexible sick leave policies
  • Promote ongoing personal hygiene
  • Provide personal protective equipment
  • Screen all employees before they return to the workplace

Assure your employees that these are the steps are being taken to update protocols and processes as the situation evolves, which may help ease their re-entry anxiety.

Effective leadership: To be tough, you must first get soft.

Ironically, the precursor to mental toughness is emotional vulnerability. Thoughtful sharing of emotional content in safe spaces indeed leads to profound shifts in group unity, innovation, and performance — mostly because it offers access to unexplored ideas. Of all of the lessons Covid-19 will teach us, perhaps newfound appreciation of our biological, economic, social, and intellectual inter-connectivity will be the most powerful.

The inevitable discomfort that accompanies change should not be interpreted as a sign we are on the wrong path — just the opposite. This anxiety is a sign of productive growth, telling us we are on the right path to making substantive changes. To squander this moment’s rich opportunity for transformative change is as bad for business as it is for the brain.