Returning to Work After the Pandemic

VPPPA has partnered with the experts at MindWise Innovations to present a monthly article addressing issues and questions that members might be hesitant to ask about. These columns will address your concerns about mental health, substance abuse, brain injuries, family issues, and more. 

By: Lisa Desai, Chief Behavioral Health Officer, MindWise Innovations

It’s often difficult to break free from a routine, particularly when the global pandemic unended our lives and forced us to adopt new daily patterns. Routines provide comfort in their familiarity and structure. Now that many people are returning to work, either in person or in a blended fashion, many are facing unexpected challenges. Now the return to “normalcy” is once more forcing people to alter their daily patterns. We are in uncharted territory here; we’ve never experienced a pandemic before, so there is no reasonable expectation for what the workplace will look like upon our return.

“Uncertainty and unpredictability can really create an unhealthy amount of fear and stress, especially when it’s sustained over such a long period of time,” Dr. K. Luan Phan, chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, writes. “Challenges will remain as businesses reopen, and the typical workplace will look very different following this pandemic.” Employees may look and feel different as well; we’ve gained many new stressors since the pandemic began and it is only natural to expect lasting changes from the accommodations we have made. But let’s remember that many of us have learned a lot about our work style and habits as well – and remote work may have the benefit of nurturing self-organization and other skills which can be beneficial in the long run.

The world is beginning to reopen as many people are getting vaccinated. It’s almost time (if not already time) to gather in cubicles, break rooms, and around the water cooler again. As daunting as the prospect of returning to work may be, there are strategies that can ease the transition. Here are some tips to ease your reentry into your workplace and to combat the stress you may be feeling.

tenuto Learn to Recognize When You’re Stressed
Recognizing symptoms of stress can help to better manage one’s lifestyle to lessen the impact. Stress reactions include acute or ongoing worry, difficulty focusing on tasks, irritability, physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach upset, and poor sleep. Realizing that you are stressed and identifying the source are crucial to fighting it. Feeling angry, irritated, or unmotivated might mean you are more stressed than you realize and it’s time to take a break. Additionally, worrying about contracting the virus at work and taking care of familial needs while working can lead to increased stress, so it is important to acknowledge these stressors. One of the most important things you can do is to create a routine that is separate for being at work versus after work/being home. Setting aside time after the workday has ended to spend time with family or friends, take a walk, cook dinner. or engage in other activities that help to download from the workday. Prioritize Your Sleep
We’ve talked about the importance of sleep in a prior VPPPA blog; sleep plays a big role in healthy stress management. A 2015 Sleep Foundation Study found that 1 in 3 people in the US have trouble sleeping at least one night per week. The power of sleep often goes overlooked, but sleeping is crucial to our overall behavioral health.

One of the most effective things you can do is form good sleep hygiene by creating and adhering to a sleep routine. NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) lists some great tips to help you create a sleep routine and build good sleep hygiene.

Before Returning to In-Person, Run a “Dress Rehearsal” at Home
Ohio’s Department of Health recommends embracing the return to structure: “The lack of a routine can be a driving force for many mental illnesses and can heighten anxiety. If you can, try to get into your work routine at home before physically returning — wake up at the usual time, get bathed and dressed as you would normally, and try to return to your normal timeline during the day.”

Culture and Communication
What is your work culture? During the past year of remote work, organizations differed dramatically in the type of support they offered employees and teams. The companies that survived and thrived during the pandemic where those that offered strong leadership, bolstered morale and attended to employee wellbeing. If you are struggling with re-adjustment to on-site work, find an ally at work to talk about your experience. Don’t be afraid to tell a trusted boss or coworker that you are having difficulty readjusting to work, odds are others are having trouble too. Cultivate a support network of people who can help you and be sure to go to them when you need to. Talking about your problems can help lead to solutions and help you create a positive and supportive work environment in your organization.

Schedule Time for Self-Care – Even 5 Minutes!
Self-care doesn’t have to be bubble baths and face masks. For some, it might be spending time in nature or talking a long leisurely stroll. For others, it might be playing a new game, scheduling some time with friends, or abstaining from social media. If you need some ideas on where to start, check out our updated list of self-care tips and archive of digital resources to get some ideas. Remember it’s perfectly natural to feel stressed and overwhelmed during this difficult transition, and self-care is different for every person – take your time and find something that helps you feel recharged.

Jacqueline "Jackie" Annis is an industrial hygienist with the Office of Partnerships and Recognition, Directorate of Cooperative and State Programs in OSHA’s National Office.  Jackie’s primary responsibilities include developing and overseeing internal policies and procedures for the VPP, reviewing VPP on-site evaluation reports for process safety management information, serving as the National Office liaison for two of OSHA’s ten Regions, and facilitating the management of OSHA’s National Strategic Partnership Program.  She is an integral part of OSHA’s National Office team. 

She has served with the Agency for 36 years, including five years as a senior industrial hygienist in OSHA’s Office of Health Enforcement, Directorate of Enforcement Programs in the National Office and 17 years as a compliance safety and health officer in the Denver, CO Area Office.  Prior to her tenure at OSHA, Jackie worked as an industrial hygienist for the Department of the Navy in Alameda, California.  Jackie obtained a Bachelor of Science degree from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA in 1983.

Wayne Howard earned a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from UC Davis and has spent 12 years with Shell (at Martinez) refinery, 3 years with the consulting firm Process Safety, 15 years with Valero (at Benicia), and the last 10 years in the Corporate Process Safety Department. He is the Valero representative to AFPM's Advancing Process Safety Initiative.

Nathan Obaugh, PE is a senior engineer in the Safety and Operational Excellence Group at NuStar Energy. Nathan has over 10 years of PSM and process design experience in the petrochemical, refining and midstream industries. At NuStar, Nathan oversees all elements of the corporate PSM program and works directly on hazard analysis, process safety studies, PSM/RMP audits and provides process engineering support to the operations and capital projects groups.

Jared Teter, PhD is a senior staff scientist with a background in physics and hazards analysis. He has extensive experience in subscale testing of energetic materials and has served as program manager for several large testing and risk management projects. He has applied engineering and risk management protocols while evaluating the risk associated with propellant and explosives manufacturing, combustible dust, and other hazardous material related processes.

Tim Belitz has a degree in Environmental Health/Industrial Hygiene from Old Dominion University and a Master’s from Duke University. He has over 25 years of Industrial Health Safety and Environmental Experience and is a Certified Safety Professional. He has many years focused on Contractor Management and Process Safety programs.

Rob Walker graduated from Virginia Tech in Microbiology and Chemical Engineering. Rob has almost 35 years of experience working in the chemical plant and refining industry. His passion for Process Safety and Mechanical Integrity began very early in his career. Rob began with his current company, Honeywell, back in 2011.

Prasad Joshi has B.S. and M.S. Degrees in Chemical Engineering from two universities in India. Prasad has over 30 years’ experience in the business. He began with Honeywell in May 2022 as Principal Maintenance Engineer. He has worked internationally in Asia and Europe.