As the COVID-19 infection rates continue to decrease across the tri-state region, many employees are returning to their in-person workplaces. A March survey from the Partnership For New York City estimates that 45% of office employees are expected to return by September.
But not everyone is happy about the sudden revival of face-to-face interactions. The American Psychological Association found earlier this year that nearly half—49%—of U.S. respondents feel uneasy about transitioning back to in-person life. For those who are vaccinated, the number is almost identical, at 48%. Experts say this is a natural reaction to spending the past year in isolation, but there are ways to combat this anxiety.
Jeffrey Gardere, a clinical psychologist in Manhattan, said people have been wearing masks for so long that some of his patients and friends have forgotten how to read facial features. Others cite being unsure of how to resume social rituals.
“They don't know whether they should shake hands or bump elbows. What the proper distance they should keep even if they're vaccinated or masked,” Gardere said. “They're just really kind of confused, really anxious, kind of scared.”
New Yorkers such as Laura Slutsky said they normally love to be outgoing, but she is feeling some anxiety about the reopening. As an advertiser, she’s concerned she's lost some of her social skills over the past year—a crucial part of her job.
“Will I be as good as I was pre-pandemic?” wondered Slutsky, who lives in Sutton Place. “Will I be as funny as I was? Will I do my dance as well as I did? I felt like I was in my life and then the plug was pulled, and the batteries were taken out of me.”
But some are excited to finally be done with being stuck at home. Outsider her office building near Bryant Park, Sophie Ge said she had struggled to only look at her laptop all day for her finance gig. “I felt my eyesight dropped a lot last year. I was eager to go back to the office,” said Ge, who returned to the office after getting vaccinated in May. She estimates about half of her co-workers have already returned.
For people who are feeling anxious about returning to “normal,” Jamie Wasserman, a psychotherapist in Montclair, New Jersey, said socializing in small doses at first can help soothe the transition. She added that in general, a lot of people overcome anxiety through exposure therapy—doing what they're afraid to do.
“Going to public places, sitting in an outdoor restaurant, becoming more and more comfortable with being in situations that are crowded, being in situations where there's other people so that they can use that muscle again,” said Wasserman. “Because this isn't going to last forever.”