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7 Ways to Cope with Return to Work and School During a Pandemic

written by Cecilia Pang - Aug 23, 2021
medically reviewed by Dr. Christine Bishara, MD - Sep 7, 2021

Photo Credit: by Dan Burton,
Photo Credit: by Dan Burton,

Amidst the uncertainty and rapidly shifting circumstances wrought by variants of concern, anxieties can be compounded with back to school and back to work plans looming in the back of our minds. As various steps are taken by our governments, workplaces, and schools to ensure a smooth transition, there are also steps we can take to prepare for the fall. Depending on whether you are a parent or not, this article will cover seven tips from psychologists, psychiatrists, and career experts on maintaining mental and physical health.

First, figure out what and how things have changed.

Since the past year and a half, many dynamics in our personal and professional lives have changed drastically. Re-immersing ourselves in our previous work arrangements or environments may not be practical, feasible, or comfortable anymore. Clearly identifying the things, we now need or require as an employee or individual is crucial in establishing a new workflow and routine. While these reflections may have occurred for many of us already, pinpointing boundaries or communicating our needs with those around us –be it our family, friends, co-workers, or bosses–cannot be overlooked. A starting point can be taking time to reflect and write these thoughts down. This may include writing a list of what worked for you and what didn’t during the pandemic.

These needs can be something as simple as having opportunities during the workday to have work functions or socials in order to reconnect with co-workers. For others, it could be limiting the number of back to back Zoom meetings. Other needs may look like specific break times you now require but previously didn’t to accommodate new school or work schedules of your child or partner.

Second, get into a steady routine.

Going back to work or school means that 9AM meetings or classes start at 9AM sharp. What might have worked for many of us virtually of logging on a few minutes after or having our cameras off to tuck pieces of flyaway hair may longer work for us in real life. But getting back into a routine is a lot easier said than done. For many of us, the amount of time it takes to solidify the routine and habits, varies. Therefore, ensure that you have at least a few weeks before you’re scheduled to work from the office, begin hybrid arrangements, or start classes to get comfortable with your old routine pre-pandemic or new routine you’ve re-established during the pandemic. Whether it’s spending some time prepping outfits or lunch meals and starting small morning or evening routines can be a mindful ritual that makes the transition a lot smoother and more approachable. One thing not to forget especially for commuters is that even the commuting routine cannot be forgotten! For some of us, this means mapping out what route to take especially if routes have been changed due to construction. Public transportation in certain areas may even be less frequent due to budget cuts or less people using such services.

For parents, re-establishing certain habits and rituals can also be done collaboratively with children. There are many things that parents can do to support their child in returning to school such as practicing wake up routines or school drop offs. Even sleep schedules and eating healthy with regular meals and snacks are important to keep in mind.

All in all, routines not only add a sense of stability to our lives, but they can help us feel prepared. Decision fatigue can affect our ability to make decisions and add to our stress during a time when so much is changing and happening around us.

Third, separate tasks.

During the pandemic, many of us found the lines between work, school, and personal life easily blurred. Those who previously didn’t do online school or work from home found their kitchen table becoming a makeshift office space. Or the bedroom becoming the board room or classroom. Regardless of what it was like for us, it was clear that having cues and ways to separate the different spheres of our life helped us with mitigating our stress and to be more present in each of the various roles we have. As we begin to transition into more in person encounters and find ourselves physically present in different spaces, Vicki Salemi a career expert suggests ‘monotasking.’ This means focusing on only one task at a time – nothing else. After completing each task, give yourself a break whether it’s a mind break or looking out the window or getting up from your desk to grab water. This also tied into the idea of helping to separate no-work activities from work ones. No more online shopping or texting during meetings or answering emails during dinner time. Focus on one thing at a time and be kind to yourself by taking breaks. The number of activities and tasks that we may find ourselves grappling with again may be overwhelming so it’s okay to recognize that taking each day as it is and one step at a time is more than enough.

It might also be a good idea to take walking breaks during the day to help stay on task and focused. Numerous studies have found that taking short breaks throughout the day actually make us more productive. Outdoor breaks or short walks are even more beneficial for our health since they allow us to see nature and smell fresh air.

Fourth, be clear about what’s okay and what isn’t.

Despite the lifting of restrictions across US states, we have our personal approaches to what we are comfortable with doing and how we go about doing them. Being clear by communicating or acting out what we would prefer in social interactions, we can keep our activities safe and comfortable. Depending on our personal risk levels, the choices we make will differ. Things such as eating out at a restaurant or going to a small get together may look very differently depending on our personal health histories, our family’s health histories, and the guidance within each state. Choosing empathy with those we are interacting with also goes a long way. Readjusting activities or our actions to be accommodating for others and what they are comfortable with is just as important as telling others what we require in certain social interactions. For instance, if you prefer at this moment in time to catch up on outdoor patios or a distanced picnic when a friend asks you out to lunch at a restaurant, don’t hesitate to let them know! Or when a colleague reaches in for a hug, if you’re not ready for it, just ask them how about a elbow greeting instead? We can remain connected and close without breaching our own levels of comfort by being creative.

Fifth, rebuild or focus on building (new) relationships.

While we are not in the clear just yet as the pandemic is not over, there are many ways in which we can begin to safely rebuild or build relationships with new people and old friends. As humans, we crave social intimacy and connection. For most of us, the past year of various lockdowns and restrictions, has made it isolating and difficult without our usual interactions. Some have found it liberating. Others not so much. Though we have adapted, going back to school and work once again exposes us to many familiar and not so familiar faces. We have to be mindful of what we and others are comfortable with such as greetings (handshakes, hugs, in person coffee chats, etc) but there are many safe ways of putting in the effort to re-establish connections again. Whether that’s stopping by someone else’s desk from a distance to ask a question rather than sending a quick email. Or even on the way home commute to let friends or co-workers know that from 5-5:30pm (the length of your commute) that you’ll be available to catch up over the phone. Find what works for you and feels safe. Making the time to take advantage of our opportunities to build relationships will only benefit us in the long run in terms of our mental and physical health.

Sixth, seek (and give) support as needed.

Anxiety and apprehension are to be expected. Again, give yourself and those around you compassion as you embark on a new transition. Clinical psychologist, Holly Schiff also notes that anyone experiencing distress that interferes with daily functioning should consider reaching out to a mental health professional for help. Confiding in our friends and family as well as tapping into our personal network is a crucial part of feeling supported.

As Annie McKee, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education acknowledges that the office itself can be an important source of meaningful personal connection and that bonding between colleagues helps us be more productive and effective at work.

Recently, the Canadian Mental Health Association of Ontario in Canada (CMHO) surveyed over 600 parents and found that parents are finding this back-to-school season more stressful than usual. There’s the uncertainty of whether a child will be returning to the classroom on a full-time or part-time basis with remote learning. Even if schools have set up back to school plans and policies, the uncertainty of the pandemic means that schooling and scheduling can quickly change. On top of all these stressors, parents are concerned on how returning to the classroom during this particularly challenging time will affect their children’s mental health even more so for those with children who are already struggling with mental health or behavioural challenges.

Therefore, for a lot of parents and children grappling with these challenges and emotional weight of back-to-school can be extensive and intense. In particular, parents can practice being confident in their communications as key to reassuring their children with the decisions they make. Recognizing and validating what your child is feeling sets up a firm foundation for when and if children need support, they will more likely be able to bring it up. Consider using a script as Mary Alvord, a psychologist who specialized in treating children and adolescents with anxiety disorders suggests. For instance, “I know it’s been hard…I know there’s a lot of things you don’t know, and it may be scary.” Then you could mention various reasons that a child might feel upset, for example: “It may be hard because you’ve never been there before, you don’t know the kids, and you don’t know the teacher.” Then end on a positive note: “However, I know you can do it and we’re going to figure out ways to help you.”

It’s okay to acknowledge your own worries and fears. But as Alvord reminds, use that as an opportunity to model positive coping skills. For example, you might say, “sometimes I feel nervous about doing new things too, but when I find myself feeling anxious, I stop and take a few deep breaths and it helps calm me down.”

Ultimately, it’s never a sign of failure or weakness to need help, especially right now. Talking to a family doctor, setting up support networks at your children’s school or for childcare, or finding friends who can listen can be powerful ways of getting through family and personal struggles. For more information on resources, visit the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH) and the CDC resource page. Specific resource pages for youth mental health and support, visit Navigating a Return to Post-COVID Normal: Tips for Youth Mental Health

Seventh, mind your mindset.

Identify what is in your control and what is not. Then focus on what is in your control rather than the unknowns. The pandemic is challenging our adaptability muscles. Therefore, prioritizing what can be done in the short term and practicing routines or planning in the coming days or weeks can be much more reassuring than looking too far ahead. Furthermore, focus on practical steps to keep yourself and those around you safe–such as handwashing or socializing safely– rather than the ‘what ifs.’

At the end of the day, acknowledge what it is that you are feeling as opposed to denying or burying that emotion. Do your best to look for opportunities on how to meet what you need. Parents have been taking on a heavy load in the past year and the situation continues to remain uncertain. This makes it even more important to take care of yourself and prioritize self-care. Something as simple as doing a hobby, taking a few minutes to connect with someone who cares about you, getting adequate sleep or naps, eating nourishing food, and taking opportunities for movement can make a world of a difference.


Adler, Sarah Elizabeth. “5 Strategies to Cope With Your Return to the Office.” AARP, May 27, 2021.

Caron, Christina. “5 Tips for Taming Back-to-School Anxiety. The New York Times, May 7, 2021.

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“Coronavirus in the US: Latest Map and Case Count.” The New York Times, last updated August 1, 2021.

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“Five Tips for a Successful Return to In-Person School During COVID-19.” CMHO, 2021.

Johnson, Jon. “What is decision fatigue?” Medical News Today, July 6, 2020.,buying%2C%20or%20other%20avoidance%20behaviors.

Lawler, Moira. “Why Friendships Are So Important for Health and Well-Being.” Everyday Health, June 1, 2021.

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