While the pandemic has changed our professional day-to-day, we’re all responding differently. Some organizations are eager for employees to continue working remotely while others are asking workers to return to the office.
If you’re readying yourself to go back to the office but feel uncertain about the associated risks, you’re not alone. Here are some insights from someone who has worked on-site throughout the pandemic, along with words of wisdom from a therapist and advice on how to address any remaining concerns.
Advice from the frontline
Ashley Phillips, who works in advocacy and outreach at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, has long been on the frontlines. In addition to working with a vulnerable population, she spends most evenings and weekends volunteering at a hospital morgue, supporting workers overwhelmed by COVID-19 deaths. Reflecting on the past few months, Ashley says, “Did I worry about getting infected? I did. But I was more worried about the people who were already affected. I kept thinking about the people who needed help most. That’s what matters most.”
When we asked Ashley how she copes, she shrugged it off and, echoing Governor Cuomo, replied, “It’s nothing. We’re New Yorkers. We’re New York tough.”
But even if you're not spending your days on the frontlines of the pandemic, you may feel more at risk working out of your own home. Ashley also has some advice for folks who are bracing themselves to return to the office:
- Speak up and advocate for yourself. Reach out to your employer and find out what safety measures are being put in place. If you don’t think enough is being done, say so and don’t shy away from reporting negligent employers as appropriate. Educate yourself about community and city resources and assistance.
- Take responsibility to protect yourself. Carry wipes, hand sanitizer, and masks, and have plenty of back ups. Do whatever it takes to keep your space clean and be mindful to maintain physical distance from others, especially when they’re visibly not adhering to guidelines. While full protection isn’t guaranteed, we have to do our part to protect ourselves as best we can.
A therapist’s advice on returning to the office
Keiba Bragg-Best, MS, NCC, a mental health counselor, has been working remotely and admits that she isn’t completely comfortable with the return to her physical office space. While some people are eager to return to the structure and routine many physical workplaces offer, Keiba notes that many of her clients are experiencing mixed emotions. She shared a few words of wisdom with us:
- Ask questions. Ask about sick days and leave, and how this works with COVID-19 policies. Communicate clearly. Remember that returning to the office may be stressful for you and your employer, so approach the conversations with a collaborative mindset.
- Offer suggestions. Once you know what precautions your employer is taking to keep everyone safe, ask yourself realistic questions about your comfort level with those plans. Evaluate what is feasible right now. Is continued remote work an option? Are there things, like a staggered work schedule, that would make the transition back go more smoothly? Let your supervisor know how you’re feeling and what you need.
- Take care of yourself. Think about healthy activities that have helped you cope in the past. Whether, music, art, community or something else, do as much of these things as you find helpful. Breathe: deep breathing helps to calm down the parasympathetic nervous system and allows us a moment to pause. If you’re less familiar with this, do a search for “breathing exercises” and investigate other self-care practices. Physical exercise also helps with stress management. Reflect on ways you might be able to use some of your healthy coping mechanisms while at your physical workplace.
- Be honest about your anxiety. Others in your network may feel similarly. It can be helpful to just talk openly about your fears with a friend, partner, or family member, even if they don’t share your worries.
- Remember that your mental health matters. Your emotions and concerns are valid. This pandemic is real and it impacts us all differently. Validate your feelings and be gentle with yourself. If it’s feasible for you, consider joining a support group or doing individual counseling.
If talking with someone to process your feelings around going back to work would be helpful be sure to consult this list of free mental health resources.
Voice your concerns
So that you can have an informed conversation, consider reviewing the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s guidelines on returning to work for COVID-19 before reaching out to HR or your supervisor.
- Educate yourself. Read about your workplace rights, especially If you aren't convinced your organization is doing enough, and share your findings. Make note of the risks you’re most concerned about and keep in mind that your workplace is required to provide a safe workplace (though what constitutes this can vary).
- Weigh your options and don’t skim the fine print. If your employer isn’t willing to be flexible and you’re considering pursuing other opportunities, make sure you’ve consulted and fully understand your state’s regulations, which laws and policies apply to your situation, and how this may impact your eligibility for unemployment benefits. Document any concerns you’ve expressed to your employer, in case you need to refer to them later.
The bottom line: keep prioritizing your health and well-being. If you have concerns, speak up about them—and don't be afraid to look into alternatives to a physical return to the office. Do your homework and engage in open discussion with colleagues before you make any major decisions.
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Sheena Daree Miller is based in Brooklyn and divides her time between working in faculty development at a university and managing a black heritage center at a library. She is committed to promoting equity, with an emphasis on supporting graduating students and career changers.