A former colleague’s practise run at dressing again for the office drew sympathetic suggestions on social media that employers consider relaxing dress code restrictions for re-entry. Yoga pants instead of grown-up pants, Birkenstocks and shorts to start with, then re-evaluate 21 days later?
As the COVID-19 pandemic recedes and restrictions lift, the prospect of a return to the office isn’t exactly sparking sheer, unbridled joy. “Return-to-office anxiety,” Bloomberg reports, is part of broader uneasiness as people emerge from COVID’s siege.
When asked how anxious they were about “going back to the way things were,”52 per cent of Canadians surveyed by Leger in late May reported “high” or “some level of” anxiety, slightly more than the Americans surveyed (49 per cent).
Our fear of contracting COVID-19 may be at its lowest level since the pandemic began in earnest, but when Maru Public Opinion asked a sample of Canadians what they believe is going to stick after COVID fully recedes, many said they intend to wash their hands more, avoid large crowds more, and vacation within driving distance more often rather than flying. They were less enamoured than before COVID with buffets, cruise ships, getting on a subway or bus, “working in an office with colleagues close by” or going out with someone they don’t know particularly well.
After fifteen months of rolling lockdowns and lifts, some reopening skittishness is normal. Move people from high alert (danger!) to good to sort-of-go again, and “it’s going to take some time for you to get comfortable again,” said Dr. Thomas Ungar, psychiatrist-in-chief at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital.
Canadians have experienced a real, existential threat to their lives and way of living. Thousands are grieving the loss of loved ones or livelihoods. “Most of us have felt some sadness, anxiety, frustration, boredom, worry,” Ungar said, all of which are appropriate for one of the worst respiratory pandemics of the last 100 years.
But it’s important to differentiate normal, emotional distress from actual, true illness that impairs functioning. “There’s a whole industry around making that into more than it is, as opposed to trying to reassure people they’re resilient, they’ll be back, it’s normal to feel that way and you’ll be fine,” said Ungar, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto.
“Go home and stay home,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Canadians in late March 2020. But not interacting is not good for humans. We’re mostly social creatures and have evolved to form social networks. Socialization is physiologically good for our brains and our bodies, “and we’ve lost a lot of that,” Ungar said.
“Some people aren’t adapting well and are really hurting,” he said. “We see that and it’s definitely increasing” and he and others expect an increase in genuine anxiety and depression. But there’s also been a bit of an over-worry about the fragility of people that he disagrees with.
“To think that we wouldn’t go through tough stuff as a part of life is what shocked me,” Ungar said. “It’s not a perfect Instagram world.”
The threat of COVID is lowering, but isn’t gone. Still, Ungar expects about a third of people will throw caution to the wind and “party it up like nothing ever happened.” And that, too, is a natural human response, partly to defend against anxiety. “You just ignore it all.”
A smaller group, less than a third, who have a very low risk tolerance, are going to have trouble getting back to where they were at, he said. A smaller subset who entered the pandemic already anxious could remain overly fearful and avoidant and may need support or treatment to manage re-entry.
But the bulk of people will just gradually gain comfort. “You’ll start risking a little more,” Ungar said. “Dip your toe in the shallow end, and you slowly get comfortable, and then you go on the first step, and then the deep end for a bit, and come back up until you’re finally swimming and treading water.”
People may take longer to adjust to indoor spaces. Everyone is going to be on his or her own schedule for comfort, and that could lead to conflicts. “Our social muscles have atrophied,” Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering: How we Meet and Why it Matters, told The New Yorker’s Anna Russell.
As people work out social codes, “I think there’s going to be a lot of crashing into each other over the next many months.”
It’s one reason some are calling for some micro-guidance about what’s safe and what’s not as provinces take baby — or bigger — steps out of COVID custody. There also may be increased expectations of people, because COVID has been a perfect reason not to do some less-pleasant things in life, “and that aspect is going to be gone,” said Dr. Evelyn Stewart, a professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia.
Fifteen months into this, it might be challenging even for people anxious to get back to in-person contacts to remember, “How do I do this again?” Stewart said. “How do I interact at a party? Talk with colleagues at the ‘water cooler.’ The fact that it’s just been so long is going to make it tricky for a lot of people and drive anxiety about how’s it all going to work out?”
Some may want to avoid whatever it is that makes them most anxious. “But as COVID lifts, that avoidance isn’t going to be allowed so much,” Stewart said. “And what we know about avoidance is, the longer you avoid something the harder it is to go back.”
Uncertainty also drives anxiety, she said. “What’s the new normal going to look like? How well will the vaccines work in terms of protecting me? And, is this going to come back again?”
Some will want to stay further away from others, Ungar said. “Others won’t care. Some will be more respectful of mask-wearing rules; some will think it’s now OK. So, we will be crashing into each other on these different schedules, but the train will be going in the same direction, I think.”
Many people will exuberantly bounce back, said UBC professor and clinical psychologist Dr. Steven Taylor, author of The Psychology of Pandemics: Preparing for the Next Global Outbreak of Infectious Disease. After the 1918 Spanish flu, there was very little psychological residue of the pandemic at an individual level, Taylor said. Throughout COVID, “repeatedly we’ve been seeing people flocking out to large-scale events when they can.” Twenty-five hundred giddy fans attended Montreal’s Bell Centre for Game 6 in the Montreal Canadiens vs. Toronto Maple Leafs playoff series. People lined up outside bars in Ottawa’s ByWard market Thursday night as Ontario prepared to moved into stage one of its reopening plans at the stroke of midnight. Outdoor zoos and pools and patios are open, to limited capacity. The province will remain in each stage of its three-stage re-entry playbook for at least 21 days.
As we transition out, Taylor anticipates a rise “in a whole bunch of guidelines and articles on the social etiquette of returning to normal.” Some will be negotiated awkwardly and informally. Do I walk up and hug? Ask first? But the low mood, irritability, the sheer burnout many have been feeling in a state of pandemic fatigue will dissipate in the post-pandemic period, “so people won’t be as stressed as they are now,” Taylor said. “Given that, I think people will be less irritable and less likely to get into conflicts.”
And while surveys may suggest massive anxiety and hesitancy, people often say one thing and do another. “People will be surprised at how rapidly they do return to normal,” Taylor said.
Parker, a conflict-resolution facilitator, is anticipating an explosion of deep joy as we remerge — physical-based joy that can’t be replicated through Zoom or FaceTime. “There will also be moments, in those moments of ecstasy, that we will connect with our grief, because we’re safe enough to allow that grief to come out,” she said in a Q&A with husband and Time magazine editor-at-large Anand Giridharadas. “Whether it’s in a moment of rapture, to starting to bawl, because all of a sudden, all of the things that we’ve been holding are allowed to be witnessed and shared and seen.”
And, for some time at least, we’ll be “no longer taking for granted this thing that we did for very long, and were on autopilot about,” she said: Gathering.