Feeling Anxious Returning to Work? – Mary T. O’Sullivan

By Mary T. O’Sullivan

“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.” – Sun Tzu

With vaccinations becoming more available and COVID-19 cases declining, more employers are opening up their doors. While this is a great change for business owners and companies, employees may still feel some trepidation about returning to work and giving up their cocoon of safety. Here are a few tips for employers, business owners and workers when feeling “the back to work” anxiousness.

For Managers and HR:

“Be safe, be smart, be kind” – Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General.

Almost everyone returning to work after a long period of isolation and remoteness will feel anxiety. This fear is perfectly normal and completely valid. People once again will be required to make a shift in their lives. You can help your people understand and calm their fears by recognizing their human frailty. Any change in life is bound to create a sense of loss, and with that feeling of loss comes the process of recovery. People need time to go through that process, sometimes even at different rates, or with some, very little outward signs at all.

For managers and HR people, the best approach is to exhibit patience with your team if things are looking rocky. Offer daily or weekly testing to your employees. Find out if one of the pharmacy chains will hold a vaccination clinic at your company, exclusively for your employees. Give out free masks, tissues, and hand sanitizer. Appoint a “safety” team lead, just like you would for fire drills. Have that person find out who needs a mask, hand cleaner, spray disinfectant or to take temperatures. OSHA has specific directions for workplace return to work policies. Make sure you pay attention to them. Knowing that you are following OSHA instructions will make your employees more comfortable at work.

Remember, your people are fragile humans, just like you. The best advice is to develop your own sense of empathy and perspective with employees to help them make a smooth reentry, without burning the heat shield. Make sure everyone is aware of the safety measures your company is taking, and lead by example. If you still require masks and social distancing, make sure you are modeling the same behavior. After all, we’ve been dealing with a worldwide pandemic, and the reluctance of some people to return to work requires acknowledging people’s fear and dealing with it accordingly.

For Employees:

“It’s OK to not be OK.” – Ed Sheeran

When you come back into the workforce, you will feel a normal sense of fear, anxiety, and wariness. You may still carry fear about getting sick from someone else on the job. If you feel paralyzed by fear, discuss your feeling with your boss or you HR person. Be frank and honest. If you feel that you are not ready for the full day back, ask for an accommodation. Maybe you can continue work from home for now. For others who are nervous about returning to work, mask up, use sanitizing spray on your office furniture and fixtures, keep your hands and devices clean, and do as much as you can outside. Bring a lunch and eat in your office, out in the fresh air, or in your car. Just remember, the virus will eventually subside, as long as everybody follows these same rules. Check the CDC website for their directives.

If you are truly overwhelmed with fear and anxiety, make sure you are taking care of yourself. Eat better foods, get plenty of sleep, exercise outside if possible, try meditation. We all know that alcohol, tobacco and recreational drugs can make us feel awful the next day. Don’t mollify your fears with your vices. Take a healthy news break, too. You don’t need to know all the gory details. Limit your exposure to the 24/7 news cycle. Listen to calming music instead of the steady updates from CNN, MSNBC and other news outlets. If these mitigating solutions don’t work for you, don’t hesitate to see a mental health professional and don’t put it off. You’re perfectly justified in getting the right support through this crisis. It’s your future that counts. Stay safe.

Check out my newest book, The Leader You Don’t Want to Be: Transform Your Leadership Style from Command and Control to Transformational Visionary. On sale now at

Connect with Mary:

Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL – 401-742-1965


Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, Society of Human Resource Management, “Senior Certified Professional. Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas.

Member, Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society.

Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University.

Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM.