Most of us have done it.
Maybe it’s while watching a TV show, in a dream or even while looking at a photograph from the “before time”, but at one time or another a little part of our brain will have gone: “That’s not right.”
There are too many people, too close together. Touching, jostling, hugging. There’s not a mask in sight and everyone is way more social than distant.
And then, of course, we remember we’re watching a film set during the First World War, or that the picture is from a holiday in 2008.
But for a moment our minds forget, as we revert back to patterns of thinking that we’ve become all too familiar with in the past year.
Back to “normal”
This way of thinking may become a problem as - in some countries - restrictions ease and more places reopen. In England, the government is hoping to have entirely removed the limits on socialising and to allow all remaining businesses to reopen by the 21st of July.
They will also be conducting reviews on guidance around distancing, mask wearing, and working from home.
With all this in mind, we could start seeing a return to “normal” in a matter of weeks - including in the world of work.
But while some are chomping at the bit to get back to business handshakes and after work drinks, others are dreading the thought - and not just because they’ve gotten used to living their pyjama bottoms.
After more than a year of being told to stay home and keep our distance for the sake of our health, it requires a bit of a mind flip to adjust to old ways.
Covid anxiety syndrome
For some people, the past year may even lead to Covid anxiety syndrome.
As the threat from Covid diminishes, some people will continue with the behaviours and habits they originally adopted to keep themselves and others safe.
However, as the risk of contracting Covid diminishes, these are considered “maladaptive behaviours” which researchers worry will continue long after Covid is over. According to The Guardian, this is characterised by “by compulsively checking for symptoms of Covid, avoidance of public places, and obsessive cleaning.”
Marcantonio Spada, one of the first to theorise about the existence of Covid anxiety syndrome and a professor at London South Bank University, said: “Fear is normal. You and I are supposed to fear the virus because it’s dangerous. The difference, however, in terms of developing a psychopathological response is whether you end up behaving in … overly safe ways that lock you into the fear.”
However, there are ways that you can cope with this anxiety - particularly when it comes to returning to offices, a decision that is often out of employees' hands.
Acknowledge the past year
In many ways it is absurd to assume that we can just return to business as usual as though nothing has happened.
2020 has been a year unlike any other in world history - and it’s understandable that as we emerge from our metaphorical bunkers that we would still be clutching our metaphorical gas masks.
So, it’s worth just taking time to acknowledge that and not beating yourself up about being unable to bounce back.
But while it’s important not to dismiss what’s happened, it’s also important to acknowledge what is happening now.
One way of tackling anxiety around Covid is to focus on positive improvements in the pandemic. Rather than doom scrolling, rely on trusted sources and seek out new reports on the vaccine rollout and the decreasing risk of death in the wake of better treatment. If necessary, limit your exposure to news to once a day.
If you are anxious about returning to work, do so at your own pace. Try to make yourself get out of your comfort zone in a controlled environment where you can still practise safety measures.
Managers can help in this by giving people as much control as possible and allowing them to go gradually. Communicate clearly how you have implemented Covid-safe policies in the office.
Since people with Covid anxiety syndrome are likely to avoid public transport, consider giving them access to a flexible workspace near their home so they can get used to working in an office environment again without the worry caused by commuting. This provides a sort of “halfway house”. Most flexible workspaces have their Covid measures displayed on their website or available on request. (All workspaces on the Desana platform have Covid measures in place.)
Above all, as life coach Lee Chambers stresses, it’s important to practise kindness and patience as we return to social contact: “It can be easy to become frustrated because everyone is on their own journey as lockdowns ease, and some people are more comfortable than others.”
Another key way to tackle this sort of anxiety is through connecting with others - particularly if you are able to share your concerns with them and get their support in returning to normal gradually.
Team leaders can help facilitate this by giving people opportunities to connect in a safe way - whether that’s through hybrid meetings where those who want or need to can join by call, or through outdoor walking meetings which may feel safer than meeting in some windowless conference room.
In addition, other techniques known to help anxiety such as mindfulness or journaling can also be helpful here.
Of course, none of this is meant to be a replacement for actual mental health support, like cognitive behavioural therapy.
But it is worth keeping this advice in mind in order to cater to different people’s needs as we attempt to return to something like the old normal.