Preparing to Return to Work During a Pandemic

As COVID-19 stay-at-home restrictions begin to lift and pressure mounts to “reopen” the United States, workers will increasingly be asked to return to the workplace.

As COVID-19 stay-at-home restrictions begin to lift and pressure mounts to “reopen” the United States, workers will increasingly be asked to return to the workplace. If you are one of them and feeling uneasy about the idea, you are not alone. In a Return to Work/Back to Business Study conducted April 27-28, 2020, by Qualtrics, 2 out of 3 people said they would feel uncomfortable returning to the workplace right now. The discomfort equally affects workers of all ages; more than 65% in every age group reported being uncomfortable returning to the workplace. This article offers suggestions for confronting the reality of returning to work while the pandemic is still claiming victims.

Know your rights. You may feel so uncomfortable that you question whether you actually will return to your job – and what the consequences will be if you don’t. Each state has a different set of rules and laws that operate in conjunction with federal law. Under certain conditions, you may have a case for not returning to work under the regulations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), or other legislation. Most workers also face the issue of losing unemployment benefits if they are asked to return to work but don’t do so. Informative resources on worker rights in this situation include a FAQ on Workplace Rights from the Washington Post and this article from TIME. ADP offers state-by-state guidance; while mostly directed at employers, workers can still benefit from this guide. See also the U.S. Department of Labor’s COVID-19 site. You may find information on your employer’s own website. If you are represented by a union or collective-bargaining group, talk to its officials. Because of the wide differences in jurisdictions and individual situations, it’s best to seek advice from a labor or employment attorney if you feel strongly about not returning to your former workplace.

Prepare yourself mentally for the return. While some folks can’t wait to get back to the workplace, others have come to appreciate the benefits of working from home and are grieving for what they will lose as they go back to work. As you prepare to go back, think about the aspects of your workplace life that you’ve missed while at home – such as socializing with coworkers, listening to audiobooks during your commute, and picking up lunch from your favorite eateries. Visualize what you’re looking forward to. Practice extra self-care, and be hyper-aware of any effects your work return may be having on your mental health, such as depression or anxiety. If you feel the return to work poses a serious threat to your mental health, seek professional help; ask if your employer offers any resources for workers who feel as you do. Also be sure your sources of information about the ongoing pandemic are accurate to keep your fears in check.

Learn what is expected of employers. Knowledge of the guidelines that employers are expected to follow as they reopen will reveal what you need to look for to make sure your employer is protecting your health. Several employment-law firms have published detailed information guiding employers in preparing for workers to return to the workplace, including Smith, Gambrell & Russell, LLP and Fisher Phillips. If you feel your employer is not sufficiently following the prescribed protocols, consider talking with your HR department. If you don’t get satisfaction, consider discussing the issue with your co-workers and contemplate reporting the problem to authorities.

Propose options if your employer is not already offering them. Some of the guidelines provided to employers are framed as options rather than mandatory procedures. If your employer isn’t offering these options, and you feel they would be beneficial, talk to coworkers and consider proposing them to management. For example, could you actually continue to work from home? Could work shifts and breaks be staggered to reduce the number of people in one place at one time? Could face-to-face meetings be smaller or replaced with virtual meetings (or even simply email exchanges)? Could travel requirements be reduced? To feel comfortable returning to the workplace, 47% of respondents to the Qualtrics Return to Work/Back to Business Study said they would want all employees to be required to wear masks; 45% said they would want a no-handshakes/hugs policy at work; and 38% said they want employees who travel for work or pleasure to be required to self-quarantine for 14 days afterward. These are options that employees can propose to their employers.

Expect new policies and procedures. You will likely be asked to practice social distancing, for example. You may be asked to wear a mask or regularly wipe down your office equipment. You may be prohibited from using coworkers’ equipment. You may be asked to take a COVID-19 test or undergo a screening in which your temperature is taken, and you are asked whether you have symptoms. New rules regarding visitors at the worksite may be in place.

Continue the common-sense hygienic practices you began while staying at home. Keep washing your hands regularly once back in the workplace. Stay home if you’re sick. Tell your supervisor if someone at home has been diagnosed with COVID-19. Take care of yourself through nutrition, exercise, and sleep.