Coping With The Return to Work & ‘Normal’

By Licensed Psychologist Lesley Huff

Perspectives over the past year range from our world undergoing a dramatic change to us holding our breath until we can get “back to normal.”

But wherever you fall, we can agree that we have all experienced something significant that has impacted every sphere of our lives — especially our work.

In December 2020, Pew Research found that 62% of employees surveyed were unable to work remotely, with that number varying from 44% to 77% depending on your socioeconomic status. For those able to work from home, personal preference, concerns about exposure to COVID-19, and child care were the main motivators for remote work.

At the end of 2020, the Best Practice Institute found that 83% of CEOs were hoping to have employees return in person in 2021, while only 10% of employees wanted to do so full-time.

Fast-forward six months and several vaccine doses later, a Harris Poll of more than 2,000 adults found that 40% of those who are able to work from home full-time would like to stay remote, compared to 25% who want to go back to the office.

The Change In How We View Remote Work

These results reveal that telecommuting and remote work has begun to be seen more positively by many, even though it previously had been viewed as detrimental to one’s career advancement.

There were a variety of reasons for this shift in perspective beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, such as a desire to work in comfort (sweatpants, anyone?) and avoid long commutes, as well as finding more success than expected in collaborating with colleagues remotely.

However, as things open up, questions are being raised about what our work will look like.

And regardless of what your work circumstances will be over the next few months and beyond, it’s important to acknowledge the transitions being experienced and glean the wisdom from going through a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.

The Role of Fear

When surveying the inner, emotional landscape of many of our experiences in 2020 — both inside and outside of the workplace — fear shows up as a major player.

Fear is what primes our sympathetic nervous system for a fight, flight, or freeze response.

Even prior to COVID-19, many of my discussions with clients involved learning how to discern between actual threats to their lives and, more commonly, perceived threats to their self-concept. Unfortunately, our brain does not do a very good job of distinguishing between these two types of threats.

And during the COVID-19 pandemic, when familiar activities like being close to another human, touching groceries, sneezing, or singing together in a group became synonymous with someone losing their life, our survival fear was picking up on an actual threat.

The Power of Trauma

My colleagues and I commonly sit with clients whose lives have become closed down because of the fear that arises from intense trauma.

Because of this, their brains have lost the ability to understand the nuance of “gray thinking,” preferring instead the certainty of “black and white.”

This leads to internal narratives that make it difficult to allow new or updated information in, especially given how our brain seeks out that which endorses what we already believe (or good ol’ confirmation bias).

Regardless of the circumstances and particulars of trauma, the work is very similar.

Because the COVID-19 pandemic has created a collective experience of trauma, the journey toward healing and moving forward are very similar for us as a community.

Addressing & Coping With Fear

One of the first steps is to build a base of skills to be with our painful emotions.

The second step is to begin to — as slowly as necessary — turn toward the fear and trauma, naming it and validating reality.

Lastly, with space and support, we begin to make meaning of our journey and reintegrate it into our understanding of ourselves, as individuals and as a community.

A Few Practical Steps

I always recommend individuals begin with the easiest path of trying to reduce harm.

Consider habits you had pre-pandemic, or habits you developed over the past year, that are more about quick fixes, numbing, or avoidance. Begin by trying to slowly reduce them, perhaps just one day a week.

Then start the process of developing skills that help you take care of yourself. This could include:

  • Getting a good night of sleep
  • Staying hydrated
  • Moving your body (This can include play, not just exercise.)
  • Finding some things that bring you joy
  • Connecting with someone

Turn Toward Your Experience

Once we begin creating more spaciousness by fostering these skills, slowly turn toward your experience and try to name it. If it is hard to do so, consider how you might speak to a dear friend, or imagine receiving the kind words from someone else.

Research shows that when we name our experience, it actually begins to quiet down the fight, flight, or freeze response in our brain.

In other words, admitting to yourself that you feel scared, uncertain or sad about how your work or your life will look in the future actually allows the feelings to soften. This is not meant to make the feeling go away. Rather, it can make them easier to explore.

Taking care of ourselves so that we can turn toward our experience, and then offer ourselves validation of what is happening, can enable us to create space for ourselves.

We can then zoom out beyond the trees to get the full view. And, when we zoom out, we can get a better perspective of what we have learned in the past year.

Connecting to Your Values

Looking outside of ourselves to what others are doing or to circumstances that we do not control can be dizzying and unhelpful. However, connecting to our own values can provide a roadmap to guide our next decisions.

Not sure how to articulate your values? Consider what felt like a major loss for you over this past year when things shut down. The pain and grief may provide insight into a value.

Additionally, it may be helpful to look at new habits and behaviors that you developed and consider which ones you want to keep. That can also tell you about your values.

Some values that people are starting to reconnect to include time with family, activities in nature, physical health and well-being, spending and consuming less, and fostering connections beyond social media posts.

Whether Returning to Work or Not

Although some of us may not feel that we have a lot of options regarding how we return to work — especially if we need to remain in the same position or with the same employer — I would encourage us to turn toward our feelings and glean their wisdom.

We may be able to recognize that we are making tradeoffs in the short-term. And at the same time, we may see how these choices and our feelings about them can provide insight into what is important to us now, as well as for our decisions moving forward.

Lastly, learning how to turn toward our feelings, listening to the wisdom they have to offer, and staying connected to our values can help us to navigate times of change beyond this moment.

Because if there is one thing the pandemic has revealed, it is that change is a constant in our lives.

And we are served better by learning to navigate its waters, rather than seeking the certainty of staying moored in the harbor. The understanding of our feelings and our values can serve as the guiding North Star.

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