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The economic toll of COVID-19 has been huge. Businesses have shut permanently, thousands of people have been made redundant and around 9.6 million jobs from 1.2 million employers have been furloughed in the UK as part of the government’s job retention scheme. The scheme, believed to have cost £33.8bn ($44.2bn) so far, will come to an end in October.
Until then, changes on how much employers must contribute to the pay of furloughed workers will be brought in at the start of each month. Some furloughed workers have found themselves called back to work in recent weeks, with many businesses reopening on 4 July.
Heading back to work isn’t easy, however. Not only are employees having to consider the health risks of commuting and being in workplaces, many are struggling to adjust after months spent in limbo at home.
“We are creatures of pattern. Having been furloughed for a while, you have probably already negotiated with the change that was forced on you — found some kind of rhythm and pace, put arrangements in place, adjusted to the new situation,” says psychotherapist Ronen Stilman and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy.
Returning to work means going through this adjustment process all over again. “And because we are creatures of pattern, our mind and body is ‘on alert’ when it recognises changes in circumstance, and we might feel out of balance, out of sorts,” Stilman adds.
While there is a lot of talk about getting used to the ‘new normal’ — it’s still not clear what this entails. The pandemic is far from over and the situation will continue to change. As a result, more than two-fifths of UK workers are anxious about the prospect of returning to the workplace, according to a poll of 1,000 adults by YouGov for the CIPD.
“At present, what people seem to be presenting with is anxiety around travel to work and also being at work regardless of any potential social distancing measures,” says psychotherapist Ales Zivkovic and a UKCP spokesperson. “People are aware of the fact that there still is the virus present in the population. So, anxieties are mainly around discomfort of being amongst people.”
The uncertainty of how the situation will evolve and impact our lives in the future is also taking its toll on people, Zivkovic explains. “Things would be much easier if people knew when and how this pandemic is going to end,” he says. “Not knowing that, brings almost existential anxiety around how to live one’s life in the future. Some go as far as rethinking their identity and career choices.”
So what can you do to make returning to work after furlough a bit easier?
For people who are concerned about their health, it’s important to discuss this openly with employers to find out what safety measures have been put in place. If you are under pressure to do things you are not comfortable with, find a way to express that and ask for what you need. You may be able to continue working from home if you don’t feel happy commuting to the office.
If you feel overwhelmed at the prospect of returning to work, remember to slow down and take time for yourself. Ease back into work if you need to, rather than immediately trying to get back to your previous pace. “One of the advantages of the lockdown was time, and has been referred to as ‘the big pause’,” Stilman says. “If you notice yourself going to overdrive, take a breath, find ground, make time for relaxation and recharge.”
If you’ve been furloughed since the start of the pandemic, it’s likely that you will have taken a break from your usual structure too. You may have been getting up and going to bed later, or let your usual exercise routines slip. Recreating structure in your day can make the transition back to work easier — which means rising at the same time every day, taking regular breaks and eating at set mealtimes.
And remember, it’s normal to feel generally anxious about the current situation — and to feel worried about the future. You can seek professional help from your GP if you are struggling with anxiety or low mood.
“When it comes to anxiety evoked around the uncertainty of the situation, things are a bit more complex as they may stem from deeper unconscious conflicts,” Zivkovic says. “One must find a way to be as comfortable as possible in the discomfort of uncertainty, however, this is often easier said than done.”