As lockdown restrictions are relaxed across the UK, employees who can’t work from home are being asked to return to work. But with a staggering death toll still leading the daily Covid-19 press briefings, it’s no wonder many of us are anxious about venturing out of the safety of our homes and the security of our new routines, for the first time in months. It’s a similar situation in parts of the US, where many employees have said they don’t feel safe or comfortablereturning to business as usual.
The onus is on employers to ensure the health, safety and well-being of those who are asked back, through measures such as staggered start times, physical barriers and a mix of in-the-office/at-home working. What’s more, technically, no notice is required for employers to ask employees to return to work, which only adds to the uncertainty. Then there’s the impending recession and what this means for future job security. All things considered, you’re probably in the minority if you’re not anxious about returning to work.
Anna Henderson, 26, from Colliers Wood, south London, is a freelance sculptor and artist within the film industry. Currently on furlough from a short-term PAYE contract, she doesn’t know when she’ll be returning to work, but she’s already “very worried” about catching the virus on her commute: three Tube lines, a train and a bus each way. Despite assurances from Transport for London, she’s not confident about being able to social distance on the network. “The Tube is always packed, even at 6am when I start my journey. It’s unrealistic to assume people will social distance and I don’t see how TfL can enforce it,” says Anna.
She’s worried about infecting her flatmates (both of whom are working from home), her co-workers (some of whom live with high-risk family members), and her own health. “Getting on a Tube feels like a death wish. I’ve looked into B&Bs near where I work, but I can’t afford it on top of my rent.”
Marie Louise Aston, 56, a mobile hairdresser in the Forest of Dean, is hoping to return to work on 4 July. Like Anna, she is fearful of the transmission risk and worries about the potential cost of keeping herself and her customers safe with PPE. “As 90% of my clients are elderly, their safety must come first, but I'm not comfortable with charging them more,” she says. “I keep my prices down for that reason.”
Marie is waiting for an update from the National Hairdressers' Federation before investing in anything else – she already has extra sterilising equipment and hand gel. “Clear instructions would put my mind at rest, for example, being told exactly what we need to put into place before returning to work.” There is, however, one thing working in her favour: “Everyone will want a haircut as soon as I’m able to work again.”
Carolyn Gray, 54, from Tunbridge Wells, owns a burger van on an industrial estate with her husband. Like Marie, she is concerned about her responsibilities as a business owner. “Our customers would most likely be tradespeople who might not have washed their hands or bothered with social distancing,” says Carolyn. “But there would also be customers who are more vulnerable – would it be our responsibility to protect them from the others?” As an outdoor business, she feels slightly better after having read government guidance about the outside being safer than busy indoor spaces.
Jessica Lawley, 21, from Derby, is a student who also works as a part-time crew trainer at McDonald’s. Some branches of the chain have reopened, but Jessica doesn’t yet know when she’ll be required back. She’s concerned about being in contact with the public and potentially putting herself and her family in danger, as she usually comes face-to-face with thousands of people daily.
“I’m worried about the public’s response to the reopening of McDonald’s,” explains Jessica. “Customers under normal circumstances can be rude, abrupt and impatient – sometimes I feel like they don’t even think of me as a real person. I fear that, rather than being more understanding, they will only be more impatient or aggressive.”
Jessica appreciates the measures that McDonald’s has put in place to ensure social distancing and the staff updates she’s received, but the main thing that would make her feel more comfortable about returning to work would be an assurance of being treated with respect. “I hope the public will be patient and understand that we will have fewer staff, a limited menu and longer wait times – and that isn’t our fault.”
Megan Kate, 23, is a studio administrator in a textile design firm in Manchester. She was furloughed but believes it won’t be long until she’s asked to return. “I struggle with social anxiety and being non-social for so long has definitely had a negative effect on my ability to make conversation and interact with people,” she admits. To prepare for her return to work, she has been making special effort to speak to friends and family over the phone, or FaceTime rather than just texting.
Megan believes the government should be prioritising helping people’s social lives get back to normal, just as much as they are encouraging us back to work. “Allowing people to socialise for a while before thrusting us back into work and normal life would benefit us immensely, and show that the government cares about our mental health just as much as they care about the economy.”
Many also fear a second wave of Covid-19, particularly in light of the confusion about how much socialising – and with whom – is permitted, and a further delay to the return of normality. “My current worry, now that the R number is under 1 and the death rate is lower, is that we spend money on stock, start trading again, and a second lockdown is called or there simply are no customers,” says Carolyn.
On top of these myriad anxieties, chartered counselling psychologist Dr Sherylin Thompson, who is currently seeing clients online, says that many of us will be “stigmatising our own emotions”. Instead, she says, “Know that being nervous might be appropriate. Don’t avoid situations in your life to avoid these experiences. Act on what is important to you and those around you despite the unpleasant feelings and difficult thoughts.”
Dr Thompson also advises labelling your particular worries. “Anxiety can sometimes feel overwhelming and breaking it down to what the specific fears are can help organise thinking and prompt appropriate planning.” Consider your options – you may not be as helpless as you think. “Can you negotiate start or end times? Can schedules be negotiated with work or your partner? Can you put some focus on managing your personal time? What choices do you have around your everyday routine?”
That said, don’t fixate on what you can’t control, advises psychotherapeutic counsellor and Counselling Directory member Sophie Robinson-Matthews. Remind yourself of what you can do, “such as increasing certain vitamins and minerals in your diet or taking supplements that support your body and immunity – vitamins D and C, zinc – and allow yourself to be reassured”, she says.
Maintain the healthy habits and routines you might have developed during lockdown. “Prioritise your stress/anxiety management tools, techniques and strategies, and schedule time in your diary for self-care,” says Robinson-Matthews. Continuing with physical activity or creative outlets “will help the transition to support you through the emotional hurdles of getting back to work”, adds Dr Thompson.
The transition may even bring about opportunities. “Anxiety can cause us to be more biased towards negative thinking. Proactively think about how you could benefit or what you can contribute helpfully on your return to work,” recommends Dr Thompson. Reconnecting with your strengths can help to create a positive mindset, she says. “Remember a time when you felt good about yourself and your strengths and abilities” – whether that’s a sense of humour, diligence, creativity, assertiveness, kindness or friendliness. Adds Dr Thompson, “Think about how you can draw on these attributes now to help you make the transition at a difficult time.”