If you’ve come down with COVID-19, you know the illness takes a physical and emotional toll. Recovery is a long road for many survivors, and the transition back to work might feel overwhelming, whether you’re returning to remote work or showing up in person.
Everyone’s recovery looks different, but health experts agree on a few basics: take cues from your body, don’t push yourself, and err on the side of caution. We’re not providing a substitute for medical advice—your doctor’s much more qualified—but a few suggestions to make re-entry easier on the body and mind.
Take the time you need
Isolation can be lonely and frustrating, and it’s understandable if you’re itching to get out there and see some other humans. The CDC’s current ruling is that you’re no longer contagious 10 days after a positive COVID-19 test and 24 hours after fever symptoms have disappeared without medication, as long as other symptoms are clearing up. Severe cases often need more time to recuperate.
If you’ve run out of sick leave and tapped other options like personal days, but you’re still not comfortable going back to work, talk to your supervisor or HR representative. Even if you’ve been working remotely from the beginning, you may just be too fatigued to get back to the grind, and that’s reasonable.
See if you and your supervisor can figure out a solution such as reducing hours, switching up your responsibilities, staggering work hours so you’re not in the workplace with others, or going fully remote if you can. During 2020 most organizations got plenty of practice handling unexpected changes in plans, so don’t feel guilty: your health comes first.
On the flip side, you may feel ready to return (and ready for the paycheck), but your colleagues and supervisors might be too worried about contagion to want you back at an in-person workplace right away. This calls for another chat with HR to figure out how to move forward— again, there may be a compromise, but ultimately you should respect their concerns.
Keep in mind: Usually employers aren’t allowed to ask about your health due to privacy regulations, but there’s a COVID-19 exception. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), employers can ask employees if they’re experiencing certain COVID-19 symptoms like fever, cough, and shortness of breath. They can also require employees to provide a doctor’s sign-off on their recovery before returning to work. As always, employers have to keep this info confidential.
Once you’re medically cleared to get back to work, don’t be alarmed if you’re unable to jump right into business as usual. COVID-19 is a rough illness to bounce back from, and some symptoms—fatigue and the loss of taste and smell—can last long after you’ve technically recovered. The lingering lack of energy can wreck productivity, so it’s important to manage your expectations of yourself and start slow.
Be honest with your coworkers and supervisors about what duties you can and can’t perform; if your job involves physical activity or long hours, you may need to scale back for a while. Too much exertion might prolong your symptoms, making things worse in the long run.
Particularly in severe cases where symptoms last for months, COVID-19 might even make a temporary job change necessary. One study followed Acute Respiratory Distress Symptom (ARDS) survivors over five years and found many of them left work or found less challenging jobs, unable to muster their previous level of energy. Hopefully this won’t be the case for you. But if the return to work brings an unmanageable level of stress and anxiety, it’s worth considering whether the workplace itself is the problem.
And if symptoms continue to challenge you, more hospitals and health care centers are offering COVID-19-specific recovery programs with remote and in-person resources. Free online support groups are popping up too, like this COVID-19 "long hauler" group run by the wellness collective Body Politic.
Managing the mental load
Lots of COVID-19 survivors find the illness comes with a side of depression and anxiety.Physicians have reported multiple patients requesting mental health treatment as part of their follow-up care.
Don’t hesitate to ask for this help if you need it. You can get a referral from your primary care provider, ask your insurance provider for in-network therapists, or shop around for a telemental health clinician on your own. (This list from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America can get you started).
You may find you need to ask people in your support network for extra help, even if you’re still keeping physical distance from them. A friendly chat over phone, text, or email can provide invaluable support, and people often want to help out in small ways, like dropping off meals or running errands.
The reactions from others might be less positive—a TODAY magazine feature on COVID-19 recovery found survivors across the country faced intrusive questions and stigma, and some were even blamed for their condition. Anxiety around COVID-19 could lead to colleagues avoiding you even after the contagion period has passed, or asking for more personal health info than you’re comfortable sharing.
Keep things civil, and try not to take avoidance personally—people are afraid of the disease, not of you. Remember you can always politely decline to answer coworkers’ health-related questions, though you should still follow public health procedures like distancing and wearing a mask. And if their behavior persists and escalates to discrimination and exclusion, you can absolutely report this treatment through your organization’s official channels. Regardless of your health, you deserve respect in the workplace.
If you’ve recovered from COVID-19 and want to share how the return to work went for you, feel free to tell us in the comments!