By the end of May 2020, most Americans will have been dealing with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic for over two months. Some have kept count, citing “Day 67” or “Week Number Eight.” Media is littered with these tallies to keep track of time passing when the days too easily blur together. These numbers don’t capture the entire experience of living through the pandemic, though, and also fail to answer the question on everyone’s mind – what will emergence look like on the other side?
Mental Effects of Living through the Pandemic
Now, the entire country has slowly begun to reopen. Each state has eased its closure restrictions. A return to a semblance of normalcy is intrinsically tied to the question of “what will it be like to return to our jobs?” The answer is both collective and entirely individual. This is because the experience of the pandemic depends on your experiences and circumstances during the pandemic. Medical professionals and other essential workers, for instance, have lived the pandemic through the lens of working harder and longer hours, under stressful conditions, and ever-adapting protocols, against a backdrop of fear for their own lives. Others, who have been working remotely, have been living a quiet monotony, characterized for parents by the additional stress of having to homeschool children and for single adults by a ubiquitous solitude. And many, more than 26 million Americans, are or have been effectively out of work during the pandemic.
People’s prior experiences to the pandemic also determine how they have coped during the pandemic and how they will return. “If you have not had a traumatic experience before, this is an incredibly traumatic experience,” says Tiffany Kaszuba, a public health lobbyist and advocate. Individuals who have not had the practice of developing coping mechanisms have had a very difficult time. The number of calls to call centers that respond to mental health issues have peaked at this time.
Others who have dealt with prior trauma have seemed to fare better, ironically. A recent article spoke about how those who suffered from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have actually been able to handle the crisis relatively well. Those individuals have heightened skills for handling stress and anxiety that can be retooled to better cope with the effects of the pandemic. Dr. Val Karan, a therapist for over forty years, has noticed a similar trend from clients he treats for chronic anxiety issues. Many of them have shown positive signs during the pandemic. Karan finds that as the dialogue around anxiety as a response to the pandemic increases, those who suffered from anxiety issues prior to the pandemic are able to speak more freely about their own issues. “They are now part of the ‘in crowd’,” says Karan.
What Employers Can Do to Ease the Return to Work
With the patchwork of human responses to the pandemic, a healthy transition to the workplace should be characterized by a deeper appreciation of what life may have been like for employees during the past three months. Here are a few recommendations for employers from Kaszuba and Karan to make returning to work for employees that much easier.
- Commit to Creating an Environment of Understanding
People have largely not been able to fully process their own experiences of the pandemic. Both Kaszuba and Karan believe that after an initial relief or euphoria, there will still be major mental health repercussions when we return to the workplace. It is only at this point, when we have some semblance of normalcy, will people begin to start to digest their own trauma. Karan analogizes it to a lottery winner, who initially may feel positively, but in the long run finds that the world has not changed or has not changed enough.
“Some employees may experience separation anxiety from their children,” notes Kaszuba. Many parents have been spending more time with their children than they have in years. As schools and work environments begin to reopen, the fear of catching COVID-19 does not immediately disappear, especially because the safety of reopening is unclear. Karan agrees, indicating that there are parts of this experience of being home – extra time with loved ones, no commute time, greater efficiency with projects – that they might miss.
According to Mike Farhi, a partner at the Kates Nussman law firm whose practice includes employment law, a model already exists for business owners and managers in the legal obligation to “reasonably accommodate” medical conditions that are disabilities or handicaps under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. “When an employee requests a reasonable accommodation,” Farhi says, “the employer is obligated to start an informal interactive process with the employee, meaning that there has to be a good-faith conversation about what can be done to help.”
Employers should be conscious of the multitude of responses their employees could have and should come from a place of acknowledgement and understanding of their employees and their own mental health.
- Prioritize and Facilitate Mental Health
Kaszuba recommends that employers lead from a place of prioritizing mental health. Employers can allow people to take mental health breaks and make flexible time schedules. They can facilitate conversations about mental health to foster an open conversation about the pandemic.
Both Karan and Kaszuba anticipate that access to mental health resources will be in demand after we return to work. Karan believes that there may be an uptick in those seeking therapy, perhaps even from those who have traditionally been uninterested. Kaszuba is hopeful that there may even be an opportunity to offer continuing education for people broadly on mental health. For example, a former employer of Kaszuba brought in a therapist to the workplace to encourage conversation about and attention to mental health.
- Recognize that the Hardship from the Pandemic May Not be Over for Some
No one fully knows what another person has experienced during the pandemic. They may be facing financial stress at home because they or a oved one has lost their job, or cared for a loved one who fell ill to COVID-19. They may even have lost a loved one to COVID-19 or have faced feeling unsafe at home during shelter in place orders because of domestic violence issues. They may have experienced heightened racial tension as a person of Asian descent. “There needs to be an understanding that there may have been and may still be traumas at home during all of this,” says Kaszuba. The hardship may not be over.
- Take Lessons for How You Want Your Workplace to Evolve
There may also be new lessons from the pandemic in what makes a work environment conducive to productivity and workplace happiness.
For Karan, who has been working with clients remotely, he has seen benefits in conducting his practice this way. He has been able to spend more time with his wife and read more books than his traditional office schedule would allow. After he reopens his office, he plans on operating his business in a more relaxed way and will likely incorporate more remote sessions for clients. “We have to preserve the silver lining,” says Karan.
Others may have enjoyed eliminating their commute times or spending more time with their kids. Simple changes such as making sure to take more breaks or reducing interaction with coworkers may have created a better work environment for some. If these small tweaks can be folded into a new, more flexible and accommodating work environment, people may be happier in the long run.
- A Different Perspective on How to Think about the Future
This pandemic has forced people to rethink the way they operate their career. Business owners were forced to think about how their businesses could be sustained when they could not operate brick and mortar locations. For employees, they were forced to think about whether they could perform their job duties while being out of the office. All were forced to think about their employment and career success on a broader level.
“The pandemic has brought about some perspective,” says Karan. He can see it in his clients. Some of his younger clients are being more thoughtful about their careers. Those who previously were driven mainly by money are now rethinking their paths and looking for something more meaningful. Others are looking for more secure lines of work that survived the pandemic. “People are changing their priorities.”
The “return” to work, then, will not be a “return” at all. Fundamentally, the way we think about employment and our world was altered in a short period of time. New York Governor Cuomo, in one of his many addresses, said, “this is an extraordinary time in this nation’s history, and it will go down in the history books as one of those moments of true crisis and confusion.” As we look to untangle the experience – crisis, confusion, fear, and anxiety – we can move forward with a different vision of how we work. The vision is murky, but undoubtedly characterized by a better understanding of ourselves, one another, and our humanity.
Angela Yu, who wrote this article, is an attorney and author. More information about Angela can be found on her website angelayuesq.com.