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ATD Blog

Transitioning Back to Work: Recognizing the Signs of Stress, Anxiety, and Fatigue

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

It is hard to look around without acknowledging our common experience. From the empty streets and shuttered cafes in response to the pandemic to the crowded and passionate streets in support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, we can easily apply the term social disruption or witness the spark of cultural change to mark the time we find ourselves in.

Your Most Valuable Resource: Your People

An internet search on June 10, 2020, using the phrase “returning to work after coronavirus” brought up more than 8 billion hits in less than a second. Most links apply checklists and guidelines, roadmaps and schedules, legal spreadsheet to protect against risk, and resources to call upon to reconfigure workspaces. For those interested in what to do, there are a multitude of sources to reference.

However, few pages address how employees are personally affected, let alone how organizations can offer support after prolonged periods of the stress, fatigue, and emotional strain. Now that employees are beginning to return to the workplace, paying attention to clues and warning signs will reinforce how organizations are living into their value proposition and remaining an employer-of-choice through these significant events. Leading with empathy and concern will go far in helping engage and retain your most valuable resource—your people.

Recognize the Typical Change Process

This experience is more closely aligned with the transitional change model associated with William Bridges and the stages of grief model established by Elisabeth Kübler Ross. These models highlight the time and performance continuum that moves from shock and denial, through anger and depression, and finally to acceptance and ultimate integration of the experience.

Considering that each of us is experiencing the same cultural disruption, recognizing where employees are in this continuum will also allow us to engage others where they are. Successful managers who recognize that people move first through negative emotions before rebounding into a more productive and positive state will leverage empathy before getting down to the tasks at hand.


Stay Alert to Different Experiences

Remaining alert to signs and having candid conversations without crossing boundaries is critically important. Remember, each employee experiences our current environment differently. Some live in early COVID-19 hotspots or areas where activism is more visible, while others are just beginning to confront these issues. Organizations vary with their level of comfort discussing issues like PPE access or health in general, let alone race, politics, class, and the multitude of social concerns coming to the forefront of conversations today.

Look for Signs

Pay close attention to how employees were before in relation to how they are today. Where they seem to show up differently, take the time to engage in conversation. When needed, refer them to your employee assistance program services or other outlets for support.


How people react. When major organizational change occurs, people may become depressed or passive or show disengagement from colleagues. They may:

  • Exhibit unexpected or inappropriate behavior or be slow to respond to requests
  • Stop taking initiative or stop being a good team player
  • Abandon loyalty to their manager or company
  • Become physically ill or increase their absenteeism
  • Demonstrate poor performance, sloppiness, or disinclination to prepare

What people express. Listen carefully as some may express intense sadness and resentment or articulate uncertainty or fear of the future. Remember, the work-from-home environment has tested boundaries with work-life balance, childcare issues, and people being “let in” to their home environments through sometime incessant videocalls.

Necessary Meetings

One-on-one or skip-level meetings between manager and direct report are fundamental to effective performance management. These are now more compelling and may require greater frequency. Acknowledge people’s feelings and call on your greatest active listening skills as you encourage open and active communication. Reassure them of their value and help them to confirm their workplace goals. And give them the time they need to adjust but be sure to walk the fine line between counseling and showing appropriate empathy and concern. Offer appropriate professional referral sources if their needs indicate deep emotional distress or signs of hopelessness. A manager also needs to coach and motivate as well as track performance, behaviors, and responses, and look for resilience and bounce back.

Support is more important now than ever.

About the Author

As an executive coach and vice president for talent development with CCI Consulting, Adena Johnston brings over 25 years of corporate and consulting experience as a recognized leader, coach, mentor, and developer of top talent. Adena operates a robust organizational consulting and executive coaching practice that serves executive clients in healthcare, higher education, manufacturing, business services and finance. In her corporate career, she served as the regional leader and president of a corporate university where she had full P&L responsibility, led the strategic plan, and interfaced across the enterprise. Adena has been involved in start-ups and turn-arounds, championed employee engagement and change initiatives, and is known for her cultural competency and thinking in systems.

Adena holds her Doctorate in Management with a focus on strategic leadership and organizational complexity. In addition to a MS in Organizational Dynamics she also holds a Master’s degree in Sociology, is an active member of the Association for Corporate Executive Coaches (ACEC), and its MEECO Leadership Institute, International Coach Federation (ICF) of Philadelphia and the Organizational Development Network (ODN). She serves as adjunct faculty in the disciplines of sociology, workplace culture, leadership, and organizational development, and volunteers her time mentoring first generation college students.

ACEC’s mission is to elevate recognition of Corporate Executive Coaching as a critical profession and for corporate executive coaches to be seen as transformation catalysts for the 21st century, creating organizations of the future.

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The title of this article, "Transitioning Back to Work: Recognizing the Signs of Stress, Anxiety, and Fatigue" represents part of the problem and challenge. I'm already "at work" transition is not about "going back" about helping others realize there is no return to the old normal. I think we need to first understand our own bias as managers. We are, after all, also individuals with our own fears, concerns, and doubts.
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I was looking for more here. While this article addresses an important topic, is does not go far enough into how we can watch for the negative impact signs of returning to work - or what to do about them. It provides some ideas - but not enough details on how to use these ideas or experiences on what happened when these ideas were used.
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