May 12, 2021 - Health

Employees grapple with re-entry anxiety as jobs call them back

Illustration of an office desk surrounded by lasers

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Pandemic-related anxieties are entering a new phase as more employers start to call vaccinated workers back into their offices.

Why it matters: Some employees simply don't want to go back to the office; some are desperate to. Some are struggling to rearrange their routines yet again; some don't have that flexibility. And everyone — employers and employees alike — is figuring out on the fly how to make it work.

Driving the news: "More and more employers are saying: 'If you've been vaccinated and we have all the safety precautions in place, it's time to come back to work.' That's causing a lot of anxiety," said Lucy McBride, a primary care physician in Washington, D.C.

  • "There's also the anxiety of, 'I had to make all these adjustments to my life because my kids weren't in school," said Georgia Gaveras, co-founder and chief psychiatrist of Talkiatry, a telepsychiatry company. "Now it's like, 'What do I do now if I have to go back to work?'"

Many Americans are still easing into the idea of being in close quarters with other people again, even after being vaccinated. But many workers also may be suffering mental distress from over a year of isolation.

  • Younger workers may be surprisingly skittish about going back into the office, said, Gregg Miller, the chief medical officer of Vituity, a firm that staffs hospital emergency departments.
  • "COVID used to be a disease defined by the elderly and the infirm. Now it’s a disease of people who are in the workforce, so this is going to be a bigger issue than ever for employers," Miller said.
  • Heading back to the office could bring unique stressors for women, who are more likely to shoulder the burden of parenting and household chores at the same time.

What we're watching: OSHA doesn't yet have a federal standard for workforces. “To date, it has been sort of a patchwork of incomplete guidance, unfortunately," National Safety Council CEO Lorraine Martin told Axios.

  • Employers will need to consider everything from how they screen employees coming into the office to their investments in protective equipment and physical changes to their offices, including new ventilation systems — and they need to communicate those efforts to their employees, Miller said.

The intrigue: Plenty of workers may be distressed because they've rearranged their lives around their new reality — or they've realized they simply like remote work.

  • In a survey released earlier this year by the Society for Human Resource Management, fewer than half of U.S. workers said they wanted to go back. In all, 52% said they'd prefer to work from home permanently.
  • 45% of workers who preferred to stay home said they'd even accept a 5% pay cut in exchange for permanent work-from-home status.

Simple matters of socialization, such as how to dress and whether we'll return to handshakes, will require their own adaptations.

  • "It's a lot to adjust to. We got used to living a certain way. We got used to it really fast, actually, and for a lot of people, they're enjoying it," Gaveras said.
  • One indicator that people are headed out of the house: Sales of Spanx and other shapewear brands spiked in the last month, the Washington Post reports.

The bottom line: "We benefited in some ways from having more time at home, which meant you could throw a load of laundry in while you were on a conference call and you didn't commute. That itself was a pivot to change our entire work life in March and April of 2020," McBride said.

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