Return-to-Work Phobia

What can leaders can do to ease the fear of returning to work after Covid?

Many people are dreading the return to work: the commute, unnecessary in-person meetings, sitting a cubicle, eating lunch at their desk…


For over a year, public health messaging has been that the safest place to be is your home, so it is hard to turn off that messaging just because your cubicle wants you back. Only 44% of workers are comfortable going to a workplace outside their homes.  2/3 thirds have anxiety over returning to work.

Some of the reasons for this anxiety are:

  • Fear of infection
    • Many households have someone who is vulnerable to Covid due to underlying health issues
  • In the midst of grieving
    • 600,000+ people died of Covid, which means many more of us are still adjusting to life without a family member compared to a non-pandemic time
  • Distrust of medical institution recommendations
    • Changing science recommendations as we learned more about the virus, plus a history of inadequate care for Black and Brown people, lead some to distrust any recommendations, including the Covid vaccine
  • Daycare shortage
    • Many in-home daycares went out of business, and large centers are having trouble hiring staff
  • Isolation = depression
    • The isolation needed for the pandemic could have led to undiagnosed or unidentified depression, so for some, anxiety about returning to work may be a symptom of something larger
  • Resistance to change
    • Always a certain percentage of people who just do not want change or are not sure what they want their post-pandemic normal to be – Read more about this in the article Yes, We are There! Or Are We There Yet?


Many people are voting with their feet by leaving jobs that are requiring them to transition back to the cube lifestyle and choosing jobs that offer a more flexible hybrid model or to not work at all.


While many decisions about the transition back to the office are made by the organization, many of those decisions focus on the physical environment: protective plexiglass, higher cube walls, new barriers, mask rules, installation of numerous sanitizer dispensers, reduced room occupancy rate, temperature screenings, etc.


This means that supervisors and managers need to focus on the emotional needs and recognize the true trauma that many faced and are still facing because of the pandemic.  While many leaders may feel that handling staff emotions falls outside their roles, research will tell you that that employees who feel their concerns and well-being are being addressed by employers are far, far less likely to seek new employment.  And, having flexible policies to accommodate the transition will help you hire all those people leaving their inflexible roles.


Five Actions for Leaders to Manage Return-to-Work Phobia After Covid


  1. Proactively address concerns with your individual team members:
    1. When you sense or hear statements that relate to Return-to-Work anxiety, have a conversation with the person and ask that person to bring the root cause and suggestions for addressing it to you.
    2. If someone proactively brings up concerns, be honest and sincere about finding solutions within the organization’s policies.
    3. Remind employees about Employee Assistance Programs.
    4. Encourage employees to know and pay attention to their own stress warnings: clenched jaw, quick breathing, fidgeting, neck or shoulder pain, etc.


  1. Rethink your communication plan:
    1. Clearly communicate the organization’s return-to-work expectations to your staff. Even if the organization sends a mass message, reiterate what that means for your team.
    2. If the organization’s expectations are not clear to you, request more communication from your own leadership.
    3. Update frequently. We are still in a time of new information and new guidelines; keep updating as necessary.
    4. If you have some people still working from home, make sure you include them in all communications. One of the biggest complaints from remote workers is lack of information from their leaders.
    5. Consider daily check-ins with staff, not on work getting done, but on how they are feeling. Keep your finger on the pulse of their health, families’ health needs, caregiving to extended family, changes in daycare and school situations.  Let people know that it is OK to not feel OK.


  1. Experiment on working models, if you can:
    1. If you do not need to nail down a new working model, take time now to try out different modes, schedules, and combinations to find the one that works best for your team.
    2. Offer the option of an iterative change back to the office.
    3. Invite your staff to provide suggestions and feedback on a creating a safe workspace to add a sense of control.
    4. Be prepared for special accommodations, flexible work time, modified work schedule. If in a union environment, also pay attention to contract constraints, and know that accommodations for one person without official paperwork, may need to extend to all.
    5. Be flexible and realistic with expectations. Even though people are returning to the familiar, it is still a change, and normal change curve phases (Denial, Resistance, Acceptance, Commitment) will apply.


  1. Be optimistic:
    1. Optimism, joy, gratitude, and humor can spread the same way that fear and anxiety is spread.
    2. Reinstate the fun aspects of being in the office together. Celebrations, ordering lunch in, wearing jerseys for game days, etc.
    3. Consider how to virtually loop in those who work from home to have fun too.
    4. Give your team time to interact without you. Colleagues are more excited about seeing each other than they are for more face-time with their boss.


  1. Focus on wellness for yourself (and encourage your staff to do the same):
    1. As always, practice a healthy diet, get plenty of sleep, and get some exercise.
    2. Fear can weaken your immune system. Eliminate or limit activities that increase anxiety, such as:
      1. Watching a news show (look for 5- minute news summary option)
      2. Having conversations that only focus on negativity and fear


Using these 5 strategies can help you reduce your concern and the concerns of your staff as you transition back to the workplace.



Beth Schaefer,

IPD Director


  • After a Year of Remote Life, New Anxiety Emerges; Returning to Work by Paul Caine from PBS in Chicago
  • Back to the Office Anxiety? How to Keep Your Fears in Check by Dr. Margie Warrell from Forbes
  • Child Care Crisis will Linger After Pandemic by Pat Baustian and Heidi Omerza from Star Tribune
  • Do You Have a Fear of Returning to the Office? By Emma Beddington from The Guardian
  • Why fear is the greatest obstacle to Returning to Work? by Allison Velex from SHRM
  • Years of Medical Abuse Make Black Americans Less Likely to Trust Covid Vaccine by Dan Royles from the Washington Post

Why It Makes Dollars and Sense to Improve Workplace Mental Health

May is Mental Health Awareness Month

Things You Can Do Now To Improve Your Organization’s Mental Health – Even While Working From Home

In the past, I would have dismissed this topic as something that is so distant to me, I would not even need to glance in its direction.

I would much rather focus on other topics that can claim May as their month:

American Cheese – and not just the slices in cellophane wrappers, but the artisan chesses.  The American Cheese Society encourages you to visit a local cheese producer.

Asparagus- hard to grow, but easy to cook.

Barbecue – obviously, go out to eat

Bikes – featuring National Bike to School Day on May 5th

Even, Correct Your Posture Month sounds more appealing than a discussion about mental health, and oh, so easy, to celebrate.  This website says to stand up from your desk every 30 minutes.


Mental Health – no so fun and not so easy to focus on.

While, in theory I know the stigma attached to mental health and seeking help needs to be removed; when it comes to myself it is easy to think, “I am just fine – thank you very much.”

In actuality, being just fine would put me in the minority. 

Forbes reported that 75% of U.S. Workers have struggled at work this past year due to anxiety caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and other recent current events.

While many companies are mentioning their support systems more frequently to help their employees with mental health – like the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that Metro State employees can tap into, I feel it quite unlikely that I would make that call because I feel “stressed.”  Perhaps, you are like me.  Even though you are struggling with stress, you are not ready to make an official call for help.

So, what can you and I do to contribute to positive mental health of our workplace – especially when working from home?

#1. Take Care of Me

Yes, you first.  

You cannot help others if you are unhealthy.

  1. Keep a regular schedule each day that includes specific times to:
    1. Stop and start work
    2. Connect with family and friends, and
    3. Provide self -care (time to eat, exercise, and sleep).
  2. Use relaxation techniques, such as the 5-4-3-2-1 Coping Technique
  3. Distract and redirect energy into activities that bring joy – for me – gardening
  4. Schedule time away from screens and get fresh air
  5. Set up an ergonomically correct work station


#2. Take Care of Your Coworkers

Now that you cannot gather around the water cooler each day, this is even more important.

  1. Show empathy when others share their anxiety
  2. Schedule time to routinely check in with coworkers to ward off isolation
  3. Encourage them to use the EAP if you hear something troubling
  4. Encourage them to be assertive, yet courteous, and say “no” to work or deadlines that go beyond understood boundaries
  5. Encourage them to do the five items above in “Taking Care of Me”


#3. Take Care of Your Staff

Leaders have extra responsibility in maintaining a health workplace culture.

  1. Make sure your staff is aware of EAP resources
  2. Routinely schedule 1:1 time with team members:
    1. Provide space for them to “not be OK”
    2. Help them feel connected to the vision and mission of the organization
    3. Clarify their role and responsibilities
  3. Encourage staff to set and keep regular work hours. Make sure they know that working from home does not equate to being available 24/7
  4. As guidelines change, create coworking spaces where your team can meet in person now and then
  5. If the position allows, provide flexibility for staff to control their own schedules


If your organization needs some nudging to help you create a healthy work- from-home structure, remind them that

healthy people are more productive:  they…

  • Call in sick less
  • Reduce the organization’s turnover rate
  • Have more brain capacity available to be problem-solvers
  • Reduce healthcare costs

One final note, *I am not a mental health professional.*

This blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, medical treatment or therapy.

Now, quit reading this screen and go for a walk.


5-4-3-2-1 Coping Technique for Anxiety from Behavioral Health Partners Blog from the University of Rochester Medical Center
Coping with Stress on Healthline
How to Keep Your Mental Health in Check When You Work From Home from We Work Remotely
How Working from Home is Impacting our Mental Health by Bethany Garner from Business Because
The Impact of Mental Health on Employees’ Productivity by Dennis Relojo-Howell on Psychreg
Mental Health and Remote Work: Survey Reveals 80% Would Quit their Jobs for This by Chris Westfall on Forbes
What Employers Need to Know About Mental Health in the Workplace published on McLean: Harvard Medical School Affiliate
Working Remotely During Covid-19  Center for Workplace Mental Health sponsored by the American Psychiatric Association Foundation


The Institute for Professional Development (IPD) mourns the tragic death of Daunte Wright.  We mourn his loss with his family, his community, our state, and all who work to address the systems that oppress and diminish life.
Many of the organizations that use training from IPD are Minnesota cities and counties.   When tragedies like this occur…

Pandemic Changes That Will Stick

“The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence – it is to act with yesterday’s logic.”
John Drucker

For this article, I am taking a quick glance at how our workplace environments are likely to change in the long-term as a result of the pandemic.  It is a non-scientific shallow dive that will most likely align with what many of you have already deciphered through your own observations. For me, I find this topic intriguing because:

  1. My own personal work space will be quite different (see article on IPD move)
  2. The modes of delivering IPD instruction will continue to flex
  3. The way I interact with clients and coworkers will be quite different
  4. And (most importantly) IPD needs to prepare people for their future roles so they flex and adapt with post-pandemic work situations.

I am interested in knowing what training you and your team will need from IPD to be productive in the post-pandemic world. As we move through this transformational journey, let me know what you need.   Email me ( with your thoughts, and IPD will use those as a starting point for a survey to direct the development of new training courses – whether for you as a leader or the people you lead.

You can slice and dice the effects of the pandemic on business in many different ways:

  1. Industries that will flourish or perish
  2. Products that will remain in high-demand while others drop down
  3. Habits of consumers driving new services while discarding others
  4. Gender workload differences and pay
  5. Awareness of systemic inequalities in workplace opportunities
  6. Urban real estate declining and small town living increasing in demand

For the purposes of serving you better, I am looking at the main business change in your work environment- The Remote Office along with the strategies to ensure we are at least as productive as we were pre-pandemic.

For me, the biggest jolt has been the shift from working in the communal office setting to working solo and remotely.  Almost every other change (such as increased automation, a new focus on AI, moving out of the urban setting, and the uptick with DIY and crafting) can be connected to this one change.  And, it generates a long list of new skills you may need or are still figuring out how to do better:

  • How to avoid “Zoom fatigue”

  • How to function in “hoteling space”

  • How to best communicate – especially the smaller pieces you use to say over the cubical wall or by popping your head into an office

  • How to call upon others to help you quick problem-solve or brainstorm without making it a formal virtual meeting

  • How to communicate project progress

  • How to redo all processes to fit a virtual world

  • How to structure your day

  • How to draw lines between work and home or blur the lines between work and home

  • How to prioritize your work

  • How to find, read, and draw your own insights on data

The good news is that you are getting some help from your organizations.   According to my sources, most of you are seeing that:

  1. Your company is losing its fear of being an early-adapter of technology
  2. Your work processes are becoming more automated
  3. Your options for hybrid (some remote, some in office) work are opening up

However, some changes are bit more challenging.  The same sources said that your managers still struggle with:

  1. How to rate and monitor your production instead of your time
  2. How to support your mental health
  3. How to manage teams with the lack of workplace structure
  4. How to make adjustments now that the systemic inequalities are coming to light

While public and private roles share many commonalities in the post-Covid workplace, public sector managers will have additional challenges when marrying disruption with a system based on stability.  In particular, they will face unsustainable labor agreements with a shrinking tax base and less aid.  When they can hire again, their system touts longevity as a hiring benefit to younger generations who do not care about working for the same organization for 20 years but prefer flexible employment options.   To get the change they need, professional public sector leaders will need to get their councils, boards, and legislators to vote in drastic and dramatic changes.

Again, please take a minute and let me know areas or topics where you need some support or more information.   Email me with your thoughts, and IPD will use those as a starting point for a survey to direct the development of new training courses – whether for you as a leader or the people you lead.

I will let you know how I do on my own transition from private office at work to my den at home, and back to my new shared collaborative work space once it is built.

Beth Schaefer

IPD Director


ABC News


Careers in Government


Government Executives

Harvard Business Week

McKinsey & Company


Build Bridges Within Your Village

Build Bridges Within Your Village

By: Beth Schaefer    Director, Institute for Professional Development

I believe mentoring can help Minnesota build a competent workforce for all generations of workers

by satisfying the workplace needs and personality traits that every generation has.

As an example, I am a Gen Xer.  According to experts, that makes me independent, innovative, and a strong communicator.   While at work, I am likely to seek problem-solving opportunities and enjoy working with competent colleagues; because of this, mentoring provides a clear outlet for me to meet my Gen Xer needs.

The Y’s (aka Millennials) are tech savvy, collaborative and focused on the greater good; they want meaningful work.  Mentoring fits their traits and provides the meaningful work they seek.

Baby Boomers, along with being optimistic and hard-working, enjoy mentoring. The opportunity to mentor others is often listed in their workplace needs, so a connection to mentoring is obvious for them.

So, all the generations agree (on this one thing, anyway), we should find more ways to mentor in the workplace.

Being a part of the Village is more than just giving, it is receiving.  A new generation of workers is entering the workplace, and as much as we can teach them – there is a lot we have to learn.

Gen-Zers have plenty of skills to contribute.  Just some of their noticeable workplace traits are:

  • digitally fluent (and who could not use that during a pandemic)
  • practical (and who could not use that during a pandemic), and
  • flourish in diverse workplace settings (and who could not use that – always).

They will be seeking employers who are culturally competent.  Is your workplace culturally ready to recruit and onboard this next generation of valuable workers?

Consider mentoring as a rewarding step to build the cultural competency of all the valuable generations in your workplace.

Generation traits and needs from Hobsons Associates.

Look Beyond For Joy

Look Beyond For Joy

By: Beth Schaefer    Director, Institute for Professional Development

Normally, this is the time of year that I write about the “New Year, New You” and how training classes at IPD can help with that.

However, 2020 was not a year of normal, and the first few weeks of 2021 have not started as normal either (I hope).

While training brings joy to me – it is my passion and how I like to help others – taking a training course will most likely not fulfill your need for joy.  What does joy even mean in these extraordinary times?

The most common definition of joy has not changed; Joy is a sense of well-being connected to living our convictions.

In contrast, the common definition of happiness is; the result of an event or circumstance.

While these times do not afford as many occasions for happiness, they do offer opportunity for joy; for what better time than now to reaffirm, recommit and live your beliefs?

To help, here are some action steps I learned while studying the practice of joy.  I hope they will help you better live out your convictions during these turbulent times.

    1. Express gratitude each day.

      What is something you can be thankful for today?

    2. Connect with others.

      Who in your life needs you to reach out to them with a word or note of encouragement?

    3. Look for a silver lining. Adversity brings opportunity.

      What opportunity do you have now due the current circumstances?  What action can you take to bring that opportunity to fruition?

I wish you peace and joy in 2021.

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