What to do if your workplace reopens but you still don’t feel safe going back to work

Workplaces are opening around the world – after all, we cannot stay in lockdown forever. But we know the coronavirus lurks within our communities, and anyone could be asymptomatic and therefore a carrier. And whilst we’re out basking in some well-missed sunshine or simply grateful for the outdoors, we’re also blatantly aware that the Black Lives Matters protests could unfortunately also be another hotbed for virus transmission. Put simply, you’re not crazy or wrong to not feel safe going back to work.

Let’s start with the basics

Those habits you picked up or intensified over the last few months— from hand-washing to carrying sanitiser to wearing masks— keep doing them. In closed spaces with little ventilation or aircon, pathogens transmit faster. So don’t stop wearing masks; to make it more comfortable, I add a drop of cloves essential oil. It helps me breathe better. Additionally, cloves are used in different ancient cultures as a way of protecting against pathogens and a reminder of our boundaries.

More practically speaking, invest in your own cleaning supplies, from wipes to sprays to antibacterial cleaning solutions. Wipe your surfaces down everyday, from your keyboards to phones to computers. Having a cleaner isn’t enough, because the same implements are being shared across the office. Don’t put your bags on the floor, ever; we step in and out of toilets and other places, and we often absentmindedly also put our bags on our kitchen tables. That’s dirty.

High Performance Coach Vanessa Bennett advises, “Try to avoid public transport as much as possible or at least in peak times”. Companies are staggering people’s work times, so you can request for that.

I know you’re probably missing your work family— those shared meals and chit-chats in the pantry— but keep it to a minimum, or none at all. Enforce social distancing to the best that you can. And whilst we’re at that, instead of meetings at each others’ tables, call each other’s extension numbers or video-call within the office.

If you’re nodding your head vigorously to the above, but you know someone who won’t adhere to those, what do you then say?

The most reframe you must have is, you have permission to have boundaries. And you can enforce them graciously. Have the right scripts such as, “For now, I’m not comfortable being too physically close with anyone outside my household. I’d like our interactions to be (insert expectations). What do you think?”. Adding the last sentence invites a conversation, rather than sounds dictatorial.

Protect your health

Bennett opines, “We have to bring it all back to chronic stress. If that’s what you’re feeling, your immune system will go down”.

Essentially, any form of chronic stress is not good for you. The strength of your immune system— both physical and psychological— is the reason why some of us travel often and never fall sick, and others catch illnesses too frequently.

First, you can read this piece on your psychological immunity to help you reflect and cartograph a gameplan.

Next, remember that when stressed, your fear centre hijacks your higher brain. Making any decision from that state is unwise. To get your prefrontal cortex back online, shuffle your feet on the floor to ground yourself. Then, take three deep breaths, making sure that when you breathe in, your belly is filling up with air and not the other way round. And when you’re breathing correctly, your focus is automatically on the air filling and leaving your nose, lungs and belly, that you have no attention to think of anything else.

Third, make sure you sleep enough. If your sleep is understandably poor during these tough times, some things I recommend clients are no devices, television or computers an hour before bedtime, even if you have a blue light filter. Make sure your bed is only for sleep and sex, not work. Have a ritual every night, such as journalling, showering and taking care of your skin, that your brain will associate with “time to sleep”. And do not sleep with your phone. Most of all, be patient, celebrate every gain you have in your sleep improvements. That will pay dividends.

How to communicate fears

I will emphasise this again, you’re not the only person with fears.

I may have confidence in my government and my immune system, but I have a responsibility not to accidentally catch the virus and therefore pass it to my parents. That forms the bulk of my concerns, so my anxiety level is 1/10; but many have told me that their anxiety is 9/10 and beyond.

Your colleagues will likely have the same fears.

And the deal with fears isn’t to pretend they don’t exist— that’ll only work temporarily and haunt you with a vengeance. It is to face them. Start with writing them out, setting a timer for this exercise; rather than to think and get lost in the worry rabbit hole.

Questions you can ask yourself, first, are

  1. Is this solvable?
  2. Is this controllable?
  3. How realistic is this?


That will help you weed out some of them.

Get clear on what your vulnerabilities are. For instance, if you have pre-existing medical conditions, or an anxious personality. Or if someone in your household is young, old or has compromised health. This will make a strong case for communicating your concerns.

Then, ask HR or your manager, what provisions do they have regarding COVID-19 and the workplace. And more importantly, what options are they providing for your mental health and productivity during these times.

How to negotiate your work day

The best meetings energise— because we feel heard, and there’s some sort of solution going forward that creates momentum and breaks overwhelm.

For this to happen, every meeting needs to be as efficient and effective as possible— there’s a time limit, come in with an agenda, a concise summary of the issue, your rough solutions, and what you’d like done. Take some time to think about this, because it is the bedrock. Then, make it a conversation that’s open to negotiation.

Fundamentally, you need to be solution-focused rather than complaining or drowning in the impossibility of the situation. Or worse still, accidentally playing victim.

At the heart of it all, we need to create a win-win-win solution. One that works for you, your boss, and the organisation.

If you want to work from home more— whether during peak hours or for a few days a week— a negotiation strategy is to tell your boss how much more productive you are in that context. It could be due to less interruptions, a familiar environment, or the fact that you’re not having to worry about the virus; cite those. Your boss will want to know how and when they can contact you, especially if you work in a culture where there is traditionally less trust, more micromanaging and they demand a lot of oversight. So here’s where you assuage their fears, by building in accountability. Book in protected times where you’ll check in with each other, get clear on the team meetings you’ll be present for in-person or virtually. And propose that this arrangement  is open to review.

Or, you can propose a reframe in terms of projects and KPIs, rather than looking at the number of days or hours you’re actually working. Some countries are considering the 4-day week; whilst this is long-overdue, this is a good start. Because such a reframe keeps us accountable and gives us more time to replenish ourselves; consequently, we can become more productive, have higher mastery and more creativity. We are also more present and purposeful in our work.

Fundamentally, your task is to figure out what you can do to make life easier for everyone.

It requires some planning, so take that seriously, and then reap the rewards.

What leaders can do

I encourage my clients, who are leaders, to organise 30-minute check-ins with their team every few days. This will normalise everyone’s emotions, and help people to feel heard. Because, like how we tell every stranger who asks how’s our day that we’re “great!”, we say we’re okay or well right now when this may not be the truth. An important question leaders can ask is “What can we do differently about (situation/concern)”— that will help brainstorm answers.

And as a leader, engage external experts rather than try to figure it out on your own. This is the time when investing in your mental health is the most important. And after this is all over, never forget that mental fitness is the heart of everything.