The need to slow the spread of Covid-19 has kept many people at home for months. Yet, as restrictions began to ease in some countries, organizations and companies also reopened their business. This means that more people will have to return to their workplace and this transition period is not as simple as flicking a switch. For some people, going back to work does not mean regaining their independence but causes them anxiety for another abrupt change of routine, according to Raquel Peel, a counseling lecturer at the University of Southern Queensland.
Peel, who is passionate about raising awareness on mental health and has conducted research in bullying and stigma, among others, said it may be anxiety-inducing to some people to go back to their workplace. This is because they have been in a controlled environment for months where they feel safe in a place where regulations and rules are changing dramatically.
She said that people are not only emotionally attached to people and pets but also to environments that they feel safe. She calls it the “place attachment.” It is a bond that we create with certain places, such as a city, a park, or our home. The feeling of attachment is formed with meaningful places that offer us safety and opportunity to continue to explore our interests in life.
Such bonds are not static, she added, as our feelings or habits also change. A 2008 study that appeared in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, for instance, highlights that identity can be attached to a place. Another study that involved a cohort of young people in Northern Ireland has also found that relocating from home to a university will impact how college students will understand and view themselves by engaging in various activities, become independent, and take on more responsibility.
Home: a symbol of staying safe during a pandemic
Just as a new college student may feel that the school becomes an important part of their identity, workers in lockdown may also view their home as “emblematic” of staying safe during Covid-19.
A criterion for a clinical diagnosis of separation anxiety is the recurrent excessive distress when experiencing or anticipating separation from major attachment figures or home. A person may also be diagnosed with separation anxiety if they experience (1) heightened fear or unusual distress about being separated from their loved one, (2) physical symptoms, including nausea, stomach ache, sore throat, and headache, when thinking about separation or when the separation is forthcoming, and (3) excessive worry that separation could end in harm.
A sense of dread when returning to the workplace
Some people may experience a sense of uncertainty or dread leading up the day when they have to return to their workplace. The feelings may not make sense in the becoming but they can become clear when a person realizes that they are worried about working away from their home, a place that they have considered their haven throughout the global health crisis. Some individuals have become more attached to their home office, fur assistance, and routine.
Peel herself admits that although it is unlikely she met the criteria for a clinical case of separation anxiety, her fear of separation can be understood as a non-clinical concept. She reminds people that even if they don’t feel fear around separating from their home and don’t also meet the clinical criteria, they can still create strategies to minimize disruptions to their everyday functioning and cope with the situation.
How to reduce potential separation anxiety
Strengthening support from the workplace is important for employees. For instance, managers need to be more understanding and flexible to help their staff go back to office-based work. Managers may consider how the change will impact the workers in terms of costs, commute times, and hours away from family and home. They can also have an individual conversation with every employee to determine what they need, particularly if there are signs that they are struggling with.
Other things that managers can do is to review the work arrangements so that employees will have a balanced routine, such as flexible start and finish times or flexibility to work from home on some days. The company management can likewise continue to acknowledge their employees’ efforts, prepare them for a transition, ensure they have a safe place to work and encourage self-care.
Meanwhile, employees are encouraged to understand what makes them feel comfortable and safe at home and pursue to translate such feelings into the work environment. It could mean having a more flexible wardrobe that is both comfortable and professional looking. They may also consider adding a new scent in their office that will remind them of the one they used at home.
Peel also suggests thinking of alternative means to communicate with coworkers that will not involve formalized meetings yet during the transition. Schedule a meeting-free day, for example, and know if things can be sorted out via email or phone call for the meantime instead of face-to-face.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, it is estimated that about 0.9 to 1.9% of adults have separation anxiety disorder while others estimate that it affects around 6.6% of adults, shared The Recovery Village.
Workforce responses to Covid-19
The Nonprofit Conference Board, which comprises public and private in 60 countries, surveyed 152 human capital executives from April 15 to 28. The majority of their respondents were from large US-based companies. They found 77% of them expect that the number of people working remotely will increase even after the pandemic and this will have broad implications for the economy. Take, for instance, consumer spending. As fewer commuters will head back to work, there will be fewer people shopping in retail stores and few people in restaurants too. The demand for office space and housing in metropolitan areas may likewise decline.
When asked when their organization expects their revenue level will return to pre-Covid-19 levels, 39% answered after 12 months (after April 2021), 33% said in 7 to 12 months, 19% said in 4 to 6 months, and only 4% answered in the next 3 months. The result of the survey also appeared in CNBC.
Of the 1,202 people surveyed by OWL Labs last year, they found that 62% work remotely. The ability to work remotely made them happier and they feel more trusted at work.
While working at home does have its share of benefits, so does office-based work. Employers need to understand the new situations that their employees face as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.