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Soon after the coronavirus pandemic struck, one in four Americans lost a job or took a pay cut — in most cases, for no reason other than unprecedented circumstances.

Even if you are among the fortunate who remained employed, chances are that you know someone who was furloughed. In the depths of the economic crisis, some 32.1 million Americans were receiving unemployment assistance benefits.

Many of those who were temporarily laid off are now back at work. And although that’s a positive development, returning to the workplace is no easy task. It presents new challenges and evokes a wide range of daunting emotions: relief, hesitation, anxiety, fear, and self-doubt.

“We’re facing levels of complexity that few people have experienced,” says business psychologist Camille Preston, PhD, “and even fewer have developed the capacity to address and even discuss.”

Navigating these new waters isn’t easy, but our experts’ insights can help you manage and address the accompanying emotions.

4 Ways to Ease the Transition

1. Acknowledge your feelings.

Most people aren’t accustomed to bringing their full emotional selves to their workplace. Depending on the environment, expressing your feelings may not be welcomed. So, when you get back to work, it might seem prudent to push your emotions to the side in order to get down to business. But ignoring them is not the answer, says Jen Elmquist, MA, LMFT, director of Life Time Mind.

This past year has been a challeng­ing time for all of us. People who were furloughed may be experiencing low self-esteem or self-confidence — especially because our jobs often form a large part of our identity. Others might feel guilt or resentment knowing some of their colleagues are still working.

“For some people, being furloughed may have been a relief at first, because their kids were suddenly out of school, or they had other family members who they needed to support,” Elmquist explains. For others, it “really hit the identity button,” and caused a lot of uncertainty and anxiety about the future.

Everyone’s experience is different, but the key is to acknowledge your emotions and try to work through them. Practices like journaling, meditation, or sharing your emotions with someone you trust can help you sort through challenging reactions or complex feelings.

Elmquist leads her clients through an exercise in three different scenarios — their best-case scenario, their plan B, and their worst-case scenario — and asks them to articulate how they will handle each possibility.

When people can process a worst-case scenario, she explains, they realize they are capable of actually managing that situation if it arises — and that’s a powerful mental exercise.

2. Practice patience.

You and your coworkers have been through a lot. Many people are facing financial stress, physical health issues, and increasing strains on their mental wellness and general well-being; they’re trying to stay grounded in the midst of seismic change.

We all know we should be patient with ourselves and others, “but in crisis, it is hard to build this patience and compassion,” says Preston, author of Mental Health in the Workplace. She recommends small, actionable steps: Commit to not reacting in the moment; instead, write down what is frustrating and return to it later. These simple acts can help build your reserves when you feel your patience running thin.

She also suggests reciting a mantra like “Everyone is doing their best,” as a reminder to be generous with yourself and your coworkers. Returning to work is already hard on everyone; leading with empathy can help ease the transition.

Dealing with heightened anxiety and changes in routine makes practicing patience even more challenging. There are valid reasons why you might find yourself feeling exhausted.

“When people return from furlough, their bodies have often acclimated to a slower pace of life,” says Elmquist. We are accustomed to less in-person interaction and spending more time at home. Even if you’re working remotely, a full schedule of virtual meetings may leave you feeling Zoom fatigue.

Elmquist adds that our cognitive functioning is affected by traumatic experiences, so we may continue to grapple with insecurity and anxiety once we are back on the job.

To address some of those challenges, Preston suggests committing to simple, healthful changes throughout your day. Start by drinking more water, taking short stretching breaks, or going for a brief walk to get some fresh air.

She also recommends keeping a few items in your workspace that remind you of joyful times, like a framed photo of a loved one or a memento from a favorite vacation. “Shifting your focus to these positive memories can flood your system with feel-good neurochemicals,” she explains.

3. Ask for help.

You may feel like you have to hit the ground running when you get back to work, but it’s common to be overwhelmed by big transitions. If that’s how you’re feeling, you might need some support. “If there were ever a time to reach out and get help, it’s now,” Elmquist says.

If your workplace offers resources — like therapy, coaching, or employee support groups — consider using them. If you’re not sure what’s available, reach out to human resources so you can make sure you’re taking advantage of the (often free) services.

Therapy or coaching can be especially productive during this time, because it can help you acknowledge your emotions and give you the language to discuss what’s challenging you — so you can address those issues in a healthy way. You can also develop useful tools to manage your feelings or create action plans for identifying and reaching your goals.

Don’t hesitate to ask for help with a task or getting up-to-speed on something you may have missed. You need the support of your colleagues, and asking them for help is a great way to begin reconnecting through compassion and cooperation.

4. Engage in candid, courageous conversations.

Leaders play a key role in creating an environment where you feel comfortable discussing how you’re adjusting to your new reality, Preston notes. But she has also noticed that more employees are making very intentional decisions about how they reenter the workplace.

In order to do that, you’ll have to be willing to talk candidly about your needs. It can be tempting to avoid these conversations if you think your boss might not be open to them — especially when many people are simply grateful to have their jobs back.

But if working from home more often would be helpful, if you cannot sustain your current workload, or if you’re struggling to acclimate, raise those issues sooner rather than later, even if it feels uncomfortable.

Ultimately, talking honestly about the challenges you’re facing will help you manage others’ expectations and bring the best version of yourself to work. These tips can help you start the conversation:

  • Begin by talking about your shared goals. This will reassure your leader that you’re both working toward the same outcome.
  • Explain the problem. Whether you’re struggling to focus or having difficulty balancing your work and personal life, be honest about how those issues are affecting your work.
  • Propose a solution. Explain how your proposed solution (like arranging a more flexible schedule) will enable you to meet your common goals.
  • Clarify the outcome. Wrap up the conversation by reinforcing your agreement and any next steps that might be necessary.

You won’t be returning to your job as the same person who left, says Elmquist. “Furlough changes people, COVID-19 has changed people, and the larger experiences that we’re having around social injustice are changing people — we’re experiencing the world differently.”

So, if you’re feeling different, know that it’s a more common feeling than you might think. Take the time to reacquaint yourself with your colleagues and welcome vulnerable conversations — they’ll help you to recall your shared purpose and start to build a plan for moving forward.

This originally appeared as “Back to Work” in the January/February 2021 print issue of Experience Life.

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