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Returning to the Office

Published in Behavioral Health Services, For the Health of It Author: Kayla Bolland-Hillesheim,PhD

After almost a year and half of working remotely through the pandemic, many employees are beginning the transition back to work in-person. This may feel jarring and overwhelming for some — similar to what we experienced when COVID-19 first hit. It was not long ago that employees were suddenly learning how to do many aspects of their jobs in entirely new ways — from huge shifts in interactions with coworkers to the sudden prominence of technology and COVID-19 safety procedures. Now, many people are being asked to adapt again.

The challenging task of returning to the office may bring up many strong feelings and reactions: anxiety and uncertainty about COVID-19, regret about leaving family and things one grew to love about working from home, frustration regarding changing commute and sleeping schedules, and concern about losing the work-life balance working remotely may have offered. Some may be processing grief from the death of loved ones or dealing with new mental health symptoms. These symptoms may have been exacerbated by social isolation, physical health concerns, racial minority stress or trauma, financial strain, or any number of other stressors from the past year. In March, a survey from the American Psychological Association indicated that regardless of whether or not they had been vaccinated, about half of Americans felt uneasy about returning to interacting with others in-person.

In the midst of ongoing stressors, grief, change, and uncertainty, it is important to consider how to be intentional about caring for oneself and attending to the things we can do to find ease in returning to work, even in ways that may seem small. Consider the following steps using the acronym FACE COVID in helping to make this transition, proposed by Dr. Russ Harris and based in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy:

F = Focus on what’s in your control

There are many things that are outside of your control right now — it is natural to feel worried. You may notice that the more you focus on those things, the more hopeless and overwhelmed you may feel. Remind yourself that there are things you can control, including what you do in the here and now and attending to the painful feelings you may have. Know that these things matter.

A = Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings

Attend with kindness and curiosity to your internal experience, noticing areas of tension, memories you carry, urges that may be present, and the emotions you may hold, labeling them as they come up (e.g., “my mind is worried” or “I’m feeling sad”).

C = Come back into your body

Connect with your physical body using some of the following practices, slowly and with ease: pushing your feet into the floor beneath you, pressing your palms or fingertips together, breathing, stretching, shrugging your shoulders to your ears, and sitting with straight posture.

E = Engage in what you’re doing

Ground yourself in your immediate environment by attending to it using your five senses (noticing what you can see, smell, hear, feel, or taste). You might follow this exercise by turning your focus fully to whatever task you are doing or preparing for next, being present.

C = Committed action

Take actions that are important to you, that connect with the core values you hold. Beyond safety measures against COVID-19, this may include thinking about simple ways you can look after yourself and those you care about. Examples include sending kind words to the people you may no longer see as often, bringing a favorite meal to work for lunch, or taking a 5-minute mindfulness or yoga break when you return home.

O = Opening up

Give yourself permission to feel whatever you’re feeling and attend to those feeling with self-compassion, reassurance and care as you might a dear friend. Where it feels safe to do so, consider reaching out to other co-workers to talk about what you’re going through — they may be feeling the same way.

V = Values

Consider your values, what you stand for as a person, and how you want that to be reflected in this time of crisis. This may include values that have shifted and grown in the past year, such as compassion, authenticity, humor, respect or bravery. Even in the face of many challenges, see how you can still live in line with your values and what that may look like at this time.

I = Identify resources

Reach out to your community and social support (e.g., friends, family, neighbors), as well as your health professionals and mental health resources. Learn more about CentraCare Behavioral Health Services.

D = Disinfect and distance

Continue to engage in health practices to help keep yourself and those around you safe.