Returning to school and work during a pandemic

Coping with coming out of more than a year of Covid restrictions

Changes in Covid-19 restrictions have allowed some of us to be able to move back into our workplaces or attend face to face college and university classes. As these transitions take place we can be struck with a new realization. The realization that while none of us have ever lived through a pandemic before Covid-19, none of us have ever emerged from one either.

We are coming out of more than a year of Covid restrictions, at the same time there is uncertainty about the new Delta variant in local communities, and the possibility of a re-emergence of some restrictions. What we can be certain about is that the pandemic has been a really challenging time filled with anxiety and loss. So, whether you feel celebratory, exhausted, anxious, or a little bit numb, it is important to acknowledge what is true for you, and to allow for how you feel to change from day to day.

We are learning that getting back to the office or classes is not just about getting books and supplies, figuring out classrooms and work and meeting schedules but also the acknowledgement that this period of transition may be tiring and stressful for you. Anticipate some discomfort. Change is hard, even if the changes are positive. Be realistic about how it might feel as you get used to the new normal. It might take you a while to feel safe and comfortable around other people again. That doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong, just that it takes time to get used to new situations.  

There are some strategies and ideas that you could use to help with this transition and allow you to be successful as you move back into your office space or classrooms. These ideas and strategies revolve around compassion, communication, and organization and planning.

Compassion for others and yourself, will be key for this transition. Don’t compare yourself. Not with other people and not with where you think you ‘should be’ at this point. We just lived (or are still living) through a global pandemic. If you had times of feeling not so productive or you’re feeling tired now, you’re not alone and that’s completely valid.  

Have compassion for those around you.  We all will have our own experience of the transition. If we can be understanding and gentle with each other, that will contribute to a shared experience and help us to rebuild safe connection with others. (Note that this doesn’t mean we have to drop our boundaries to satisfy someone else’s comfort levels with touching and space, but we can still respond with kindness and suspend judgment.) Only you can know what feels comfortable for you. Listen to how you feel when you are around other people. Know that you have a right to ask for more space or to say no to an invitation. Likewise, consider asking others for consent before entering their physical bubble or initiating physical contact such as a hug, handshake or high five.  

Communicate with instructors or supervisors and others that can offer support or provide services or space if you require it. Have conversations that normalize the real costs of coming out from more than a year of covid restrictions. Make these conversations a normal part of your planning with those you will reconnect with.

Organize your work or study space so that if required, you could easily shift back into online or to web- based meetings or classes. Prepare yourself for the idea that new restrictions might be implemented and that you will be able to navigate that transition successfully.

Reflect on how you can best support yourself in these times. You might want to envision the shift to post-pandemic life as a trip to an unfamiliar place and consider what you want to bring with you on the journey. These might be actual things you bring with you, or they might be more metaphorical.

Here are some examples:

  • A playlist of songs to boost your energy or soothe your stress
  • Prepare a sign for your office door letting people know you are not available, when you need a break
  • A photo (maybe on your phone) of your pet(s) or other source of comfort
  • A quality you want to bring with you this semester. Maybe courage, compassion or...?
  • Your favourite snacks or tea
  • A mantra or other comforting message  
  • Essential oils or something to help soothe you if needed
  • A good luck token or comfort object such as a crystal
  • Your ‘why’, or the reasons that motivate you to reconnect with others
  • Visualize the spaces you will be in and consider how you might navigate your interactions while on campus, in your boardroom, office space, or other interactions with clients or colleagues

When we are doing something new – or new again – it can be helpful to mentally prepare. If possible, visit your campus or office space before prior your first day. This can help you to prepare and picture what it will be like to return to in-person work or school again. However you feel, it’s okay. The pandemic has been a really challenging time filled with anxiety and loss. Self-compassion and mindfulness exercises can be very helpful in making space for what we’re feeling.    

Ellen Winofsky RSW

Walmsley EFAP