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Reboarding in the Midst of a Global Pandemic: How to Decrease Stress and Build Resilience

By: Julie McCarthy Ph.D 

Dr. Julie McCarthy is a Professor of Organizational Behavior and HR Management in the Department of Management at the University of Toronto. Julie’s research examines strategies that individuals can use to build resilience and achieve success in their work and home lives.

Even before the current COVID-19 pandemic hit, the fast-paced nature of today’s corporate world was placing increased demands on employees and triggering high levels of exhaustion, disengagement, and illness. Today, more than ever, people around the globe are experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety as they try to navigate the new world of work. Many of us have been working from home for weeks and are eager to return to the workplace. At the same time, there is a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety about this re-boarding process. The goal of this blog post is to highlight strategies to help you re-enter the workplace in ways that will minimize your stress and build your resilience.


The first important consideration is to be patient. As we return to work it is essential to understand that everyone’s pandemic experience is different and we can’t assume others are feeling and/or reacting to things the way we are. We also know that tensions have been running high, with many of us feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, and burned out. Therefore, being patient with coworkers and making sure that lines of communication are open is critical.


During times of stress, it is critical to take care of ourselves but paradoxically it is also during these times that we are less likely to do so. As we return to work we want to ensure that our daily routines include daily exercise, healthy eating habits, and sufficient rest. It is also critical not just to obtain physical rejuvenation, but to couple this with psychological rejuvenation. This means that we need to detach our minds from our current sources of stress and instead allow it to relax. This can be accomplished by selecting activities that you truly enjoy or engaging in activities with family members or friends so that you can really keep your mind in the moment.


Remember to incorporate breaks into your daily work schedule. The science of breaks tells us that we need a 15-20 minute break for every 1 ½ hours of cognitively demanding work. It’s also important to recognize that we are most productive in the morning and have the least energy between 2-3 pm. So, don’t wait to take breaks in order to rejuvenate!


Human nature is such that we have a tendency to focus on the negative – particularly during times of threat. This evolutionary mechanism enables us to prepare for danger, as it prompts the fight or flight response. During this unprecedented time of stress, it is very easy for us to slip into negative moods, with feelings of anxiety spiraling quickly into outright panic. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that emotions are contagious – our anxiety can easily spill over to our coworkers. Thus, as we return to work we must take active strategies to minimize these negative emotions and boost positive ones – like joy and optimism. We can do this by priming positivity: actively smile when in the office, incorporate positive music into the office environment, and focus conversations on things that you are feeling positive about.


It’s not always the negative events that happen to us that are the problem – it’s our interpretation of these events. Therefore, as we shift back to working from the office we need to ask ourselves some core questions about the problems that we encounter. First, ask whether this problem or issue is something that will last forever. Most of the time the answer is no – this issue is unlikely to be on your plate a month from now, let alone next year. Second, ask yourself if this problem or issue is affecting your entire While it may seem like it permeates everything, often our problems are focused on a specific aspect of our work and/or home lives. Finally, ask yourself if you are solely responsible for this problem. The vast majority of the time the answer is a resounding no – there are other individuals, environmental factors, and situational factors that are at play. In sum, take a step back and positively reappraise the problems that you encounter as you return back to work.


As we return to this new world of work it is also essential that we protect and rejuvenate our energy so that we don’t end up with high levels of burnout. An important way that we can do this is by slowing down. Many of us have so many things happening at once that we are in a state of “continuous partial attention”, where we have several balls in the air that we are trying to juggle. This leads to distractibility, frustration, and lower productivity. Try to slow down and focus on one thing at a time. Take time for reflection. Consider mindful breathing exercises.


Finally, it is important to recognize that strong interpersonal connections are a source of resilience. Be sure to foster strong relations with your coworkers by engaging in active listening and helping them when you can. Research indicates that when we help others we subconsciously and inadvertently help ourselves. Thus, acts of compassion build our personal resilience. This phenomenon is known as ‘helpers high’.


As we slowly return to work, it is essential to engage in strategies that will minimize our stress and build our resilience. This will not only boost personal well-being but will result in increased personal and organizational productivity. It will also spillover to result in higher levels of personal and home satisfaction. Finally, it will have significant and positive effects on your coworkers and family members.

Getting them back and doing it safely is your challenge. Preppio is here to help.