Returning to Work: Coping and Thriving During COVID-19 By: Navya SinghPSYD
The coronavirus pandemic has adversely impacted individuals and organizations across the world. As the disease curve flattens, and the US reopens after months of lockdown, mental health consequences are far from being resolved. This pandemic, along with the physical health burden, has brought on an immense mental health burden with a growing sense of anxiety, stress, depression and loss among the vast majority of the population. We have already observed what will be a long-lasting impact on the workforce, from people being furloughed, to pay cuts, to accommodating new ways of working from home and learning to balance work and personal-life activities. We are starting to experience our “new normal,” with mental health effects that will be far-reaching and enduring. The compounded effects of these health-related concerns, growing relationship problems under lockdown, economic pressures and new adjustments to life and work, are expected to cause an escalation in mental health problems across demographics. It has also led to an exacerbation of symptoms among people with pre-existing mental health problems.  Furthermore, there has been an increase in unhealthy coping behaviors, such as substance use, as a means of managing the stressors. Overall, there is an immediate need to implement effective solutions to manage this mental health crisis. 

From the lens of the workforce, as employers start to address immense challenges due to COVID-19, many employees question what returning to work will look like under emotional and financial strain. Work occupies a significant portion of a person’s time and energy during the day. Therefore, it is safe to assume many individuals are dealing with increased worry, stress, and anxiety because of change and uncertainty in their personal and professional lives. In addition to employees worrying about their health and safety, many are also worried about the next phase of their professional lives  and concerned about their job safety. While companies figure out a new way of working post-COVID, employees scramble to find ways new ways to help themselves adjust.

As the economy starts to open, employees need all possible resources in order to manage their mental health. They need expert help so that they can develop the skills and techniques needed to cope with the stress, depression and anxiety related to workplace issues. However, the question many employers are pondering, is how? The solution is contingent upon providing immediately accessible and effective digital mental health resources to all who are in need. These resources need to be set up so workers can find remotely delivered, confidential, individualized support from mental health professionals to cope with a diverse range of personal and professional problems, as well as the loss and fear endured as they return to work. More specifically, they need help with motivation, productivity, and work-life balance, topics that are pertinent to any solution or action plan aiming to manage an employee’s wellness at this time.

Research suggests that individuals are inherently resilient. They have the capacity to bounce back from adversity. In order to facilitate that resilience and recovery at this time, we need to identify current problems, barriers to solving them, and a strategy so we can help individuals remain calm, engaged and productive.  One specific area that should be addressed during this time is fear and avoidance of returning to work. This can be done by teaching employees how to cope with fear by engaging in active problem-solving, positive and proactive coping, time-management skills, and managing excessive worry, instead of avoidance of tasks or engaging in negative coping behaviors like substance use. In addition, ongoing and positive communication with co-workers is critical. This is especially important for parts of the workforce that will continue to work from home for many months to come. 

Overall, it is important to teach resiliency skills related to stress management, sleep hygiene and maintenance of a routine to increase productivity and improve concentration during distracting times. Any intervention needs to emphasis self-care and finding a balance in life. Mindful living and mindfulness based coping skills play a critical role in helping individuals stay calm, refocus, and improve emotional health long-term. It is also important to empathize with, and provide support to, individuals returning to work after experiencing loss and traumatic events during COVID. 

The key to a healthy and comfortable work environment is to recognize that most individuals have struggled in one way or another during this crisis. Our approach to mitigating negative mental health outcomes has to be non-judgmental, holistic and easily accessible. By assisting employees through adjusting to the “new normal,” we are also helping companies smoothly transition. In order to combat the obstacles and effects of COVID-19, it is critical to provide individuals with the immediate and effective support they need and deserve as we collectively figure out how to approach this new way of life. 

Navya Singh

Navya Singh is the founder and chief clinical officer of wayForward, a digital behavioral health startup based out of NYC. Dr. Singh, a psychologist, also holds an adjunct faculty position in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University. Before starting wayForward, she worked with under-served...

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