How to deal with fear and anxiety as we return to work during the COVID-19 pandemic

A behavioral health expert breaks down ways to cope with the ongoing fear and anxiety of going back to the workplace during a global pandemic

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In order to prepare yourself mentally for physically returning to the workplace, it’s helpful to get answers about your concerns and have an honest conversation with your supervisor about what they are doing in the workplace to address those concerns.


Sponsored by Cigna

By Sarah Calams for Gov1 BrandFocus

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, one message was continually repeated throughout every state in the U.S.: Stay home. Save lives.

As time progressed and the curve began to flatten, stay-at-home orders began to lift. States started reopening, wearing a mask was no longer mandated, and employees began making their way back to the workplace.

However, we’re now seeing these moves were made too much, too soon. Over the past few weeks, states have begun to see rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. Local officials are demanding that governors scale back, once again, on reopening and have insisted on reinstating stay-at-home orders.

During this unprecedented time, it’s normal to feel afraid and anxious, especially as the information changes daily. As the pandemic continues to spread across the country, it is important – now more than ever – to prioritize your mental and emotional well-being.

To learn more about the necessary steps to achieving this goal, I interviewed Laura Magnuson, a behavioral health expert at Cigna, about strategies for coping with the ongoing fear and anxiety of going back to the workplace during a global pandemic. Here are excerpts of that conversation, lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

What is your background and expertise?

I have a master’s in forensic psychology. I also have a master’s in marriage and family therapy. In the state of Arizona, I am a licensed associate marriage and family therapist. I have been with Cigna about two and a half years.

Prior to coming to Cigna, I worked on the provider side in a variety of different settings. I have worked for the courts, in inpatient settings and outpatient settings. In the past 10 years, I have also been working more specifically with first responder needs and working as an advocate to make sure their behavioral health needs are met. With police and fire, that means making sure that we can assist and bridge any gaps that might be there for their services.

What are some of the unique stressors people are facing as the COVID-19 pandemic continues?

A lot of us have feelings of being overwhelmed with information, or maybe even the lack thereof or the fact that the information changes from day to day. We might be struggling that we don’t have the ability to engage with friends or family in the familiar ways that we are used to –that feeling of isolation.

We might be experiencing feelings of grief related to loss of events like weddings and graduations. Those have all taken a back seat to COVID-19 right now. There’s also this anticipatory grief related to knowing that the future is going to look different for us. It’s almost like we’re grieving that we’re losing our normal life.

It can be a little bit of a roller coaster at times – and that’s normal – of going up and down, depending on what information we’re receiving.

How are these factors changing as the pandemic continues and stay-at-home orders are lifted?

We’ve seen different responses across the country, probably depending where you live. I think there is a certain group of individuals that are ready to just go out, and they’ve really struggled with that isolation. At the first moment that they’re able to have social interaction, they’re going to take advantage of that. Others are being a little more cautious. We’ve seen that just in the fact of wearing a mask out in public, where some people are fine with doing that and others, that’s not something that they want to do.

As the world opens up, we’re going to see varying degrees of comfort with what individuals want to do. We just need to remember that we need to do whatever is the most comfortable for us. And we only have control over our actions and our decisions.

Uncertainty related to the new work environment as people return to the office or other workplace is a key challenge. What stressors are particularly related to returning to work, and what can people do to cope?

I think there are going to be a lot of questions that people are going to have when they think about returning to work. It’s really about safety of the workplace. There are a lot of questions that we’re going to have, such as:

  • Do we have to wear masks?
  • Are other people going to wear them even if it’s a voluntary situation?
  • What’s my physical space going to look like?
  • Is there an opportunity for that social distancing?
  • What are our policies if while we’re at work someone has an exposure or they get sick?
  • Am I going to be protected?
  • Is my job going to be safe if I have to take time off because I get sick?
  • What kind of cleaning and sanitation is required in my workplace?

In order to prepare yourself mentally, it’s helpful to get as many answers about whatever your concerns might be before physically returning and have an open and honest conversation with your supervisor about any concerns that you might have and asking them what they are doing in the workplace to address those concerns.

What can individuals do to prioritize their own mental and emotional well-being? What can they do to support one another?

It’s important to start with this idea that we’re all in different situations and we all have different concerns, and that’s OK. It’s important to exercise self-compassion. We really need to make sure that we’re taking care of our emotional health, and we need to figure out what is going to work for that individual related to self-care. There are a lot of different opportunities out there related to self-care, but we also need to remember that we are a resilient population.

We’ve probably all faced something challenging in the past. We can draw on some of those strengths that have gotten us through different difficult times previously. When it comes to supporting others, it’s really about being there and listening and recognizing that we might have different situations and concerns, but we can still be there to listen to each other.

“Mindfulness” and “self-care” are common terms, but what do those terms mean? What are some practical strategies to accomplish those on an individual level?

If we were to rely on Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness, it’s really that we’re paying attention on purpose in the present moment, non-judgmentally, as if your life depends on it.

Self-care is a practice of taking an active role in protecting your own well-being and happiness, and we talk about it during periods of stress.

Mindfulness can be a part of self-care, but self-care can include other activities that make you feel better, like healthy eating, getting good sleep, exercising, expressing gratitude – whatever it is that is the good fit for you. Self-care is more of a broader umbrella, and mindfulness can be a piece of self-care, but really it’s trying to be present.

People are looking to city and county officials for leadership and answers. What can these officials do to help ease citizens’ stress and uncertainty?

Research tells us that a good leader not only has a vision but is able to respond in times of crisis and be transparent.

We fear the unknown, so what our leaders can do is share information regularly and be transparent about expectations and what is to come in a really easy-to-understand manner. Being able to be compassionate and understand the struggles that each person might be facing and be as flexible as possible is important, even if information isn’t necessarily favorable. If there are budgets that are going to affected, be transparent with what that means. When we talk about job loss or furloughs, give as much information as possible.

It’s not always good news. Sometimes people are afraid to share bad news. However, it’s helpful to have some of that information so we know how to best plan.

What resources are available to help? What can individuals and organizations do to promote stress relief?

It’s important that all agencies are sharing these resources in this stressful time, that these messages really come from the top and that the resources are supported. Whether it is an employee assistance program or other resources that might be available, it’s important that the messaging is clear that these resources are there to be supportive to employees.

We know that everybody is having heightened levels of stress. That’s one important piece, but when we talk about different resources that can be available, draw on EAP, peer support, some of the resources that were already in play, and make sure that there’s an awareness about all these different virtual providers as well. Find what is going to be beneficial to individuals and encourage that as well.

We know that if you’re taking care of your emotional health, then you’re taking care of your physical health at the same time. We really want to make sure that we have this holistic approach to managing the whole person, and behavioral health is a huge component of that.

Back when we were flying, you started your flight with, “If something happens, make sure you put your mask on yourself before you put it on others or your children.” That’s really important to remember – that we can’t care for others if we’re not taking care of ourselves.

To help improve resiliency during COVID-19, Cigna is providing supportive resources for customers, clients and communities in regard to managing anxiety, fear and stress. Visit Cigna for resources and information to help you navigate this time of uncertainty at ( for individuals) or (for organizations). For additional information, visit Cigna’s COVID-19 resource center.

Cigna products and services are offered by Cigna Health and Life Insurance Company or its affiliates. This article is not intended for residents of New Mexico.

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Sarah Calams
Sarah Calams

Sarah Calams previously served as Associate Editor of FireRescue1 and Fire Chief. In addition to her regular editing duties, Sarah delved deep into the people and issues that make up the fire service to bring insights and lessons learned to firefighters everywhere.