As the rates of vaccinations rates soar worldwide, quarantine restrictions have loosened and a return to office working is imminent for many.
However, experts in the United Arab Emirates say while some may be looking to finally get out of their house, many people are still anxious about returning to pre-pandemic normality.
According to a PwC global study, 70 percent of over 1,000 workers surveyed said there are several factors preventing them from wanting to return to work, with 51 per cent citing fear of getting sick as their major worry.
For others, fear of using public transportation and having no reliable solutions for childcare or homeschooling are also concerns.
These fears are neither surprising nor irrational, said Dr Azeem Abdul Salam, a specialist in internal medicine at Bareen International Hospital in MBZ City
The pandemic, the doctor told Al Arabiya English, has caused a lot of people to reevaluate, particularly when it comes to work, and some still have lingering concerns about COVID-19.
It means many residents across the UAE will find it hard for many to pivot back to pre-pandemic routines, he said.
“As the pandemic restrictions are being lifted and life is increasingly getting back to a new normal, not everyone is ready,” he said. “Some employees who are asked to come back to work are looking for greater flexibility in terms of work time and space.”
“Working from home has given people greater flexibility that is challenging to give up. After spending more than a year at home, many individuals do not want to go back to long commutes and prefer working remotely.”
Many people have legitimate concerns that linger over COVID-19, and employers need to be flexible to recognize very real anxieties about returning to pre-pandemic working conditions, the doctor said.
“One of the biggest concerns is the fear of being exposed to COVID-19 virus while going to/from the workplace especially those using public transport, and in the workplace,” he said. “People have adapted well working from home, as it gives the benefit of comfortably looking after family and spending quality time with them while working.”
“Changing the routine is difficult and takes time to re-adjust. Maintaining a positive outlook, setting personal boundaries, and practicing selfcare can help ease anxieties about returning to physical office space.”
Dr Salam said employers can implement measures to mitigate concerns among employees about returning to physical work environments.
“Health and safety of workforce should be top priority of the employers,” he said. “Move workstations apart or change schedules to lower the number of people in the workplace at any given time.”
“Employers should also ensure strict protocols for deep cleaning and sanitization establish guidelines for use of masks and gloves, check for fever before entering workplace and put rules about when employees can return to work after recovering from infection.”
“Employers should also consider using apps to do contact tracing and to communicate with employees who have been exposed to the virus and need to self-quarantine.”
Dr Saliha Afridi, a clinical psychologist and managing director of Lighthouse Arabia, a community mental health and wellness center, said after spending more than a year at home, some don’t want to go back to commuting, preferring the flexibility of remote work at least a few days a week.
Others are simply burned out from logging long hours while also balancing childcare and remote schooling, sometimes all at once.
“Re-entry anxiety is an anxiety people experience as the threat of COVID-19 reduces and they are to resume life as normal.
“It can be felt as people go back to work, but also resume other activities like social events, traveling, and their day-to-day activities closer to how it was pre-COVID.”
“What I have noticed is that people want the freedom of movement but are not necessarily ready for reentering fully. People have mixed feelings about engaging with life the way they used to.”
People feel this re-entry anxiety for many reasons, the psychologist told Al Arabiya English.
“COVID-19 is still here and it’s still real - we see it in the news of people dying and in great distress due to COVID. They might be vaccinated but they do not trust that it will protect them from getting sick.”
People are also concerned about the franticness of life, she said.
“There was a pace everyone had adjusted to, a set of close people they were engaging with, a slower rhythm to their days which is going to change.”
“People are noticing that their lives are even more stressful as they re-enter because of increased pace of work due to video calls, a ‘catching up’ mindset that many companies have, as well as redundancies in their workforce- increasing the workload of employees.”
“Even if we had conquered COVID, a change from one way of being where you were in an insulated environment with your closest friends and working from home, to going back out is new territory.”
Anytime there is something new, people can expect their brains to go on “high alert” until it adapts.
Dr Saliha Afridi also said employers can help mitigate concerns.
“Start small - giving employees a choice to come into work a few days a week rather than returning to work 100 percent if they have been working from home,” she said. “Having the choice and power to make your own decision mitigates anxiety for many people."
“Also, start soon. Have a start date as to when everyone will start back at work. The reality is that there will be some variant of a virus that we will be contending with for some time. Take the necessary precautions and set a start date."
“Lastly, remind people of their strength. If you are reading this then you have made it through a pandemic and if you have made it through a pandemic then you know you are resilient and capable of adapting."