I am afraid to return to my office. Can I continue to work from home?

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Q:  In July, my employer is requiring many of us to return to work.  I am afraid.  I have not been at my desk since Friday, March 13th.  I don’t want to go back.  I am afraid of every door knob I will have to touch.  I am afraid of the restrooms.  Most importantly I am afraid of the men in my office who never ever wash their hands!  It is a running joke in our office that a few men leave the restroom with nothing more than a quick swish.  There was a rumor that someone in a neighboring office suite has been sick.  Ugh.  Can they make me return?  What if I want to continue to work at home?

A:  Anxiety levels are high.  Many employees are fearful right now.  Returning to the workplace can increase anxiety levels for sure.   A few recommendations:

  1. Ask your manager about office cleaning protocols. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is requiring offices to follow certain protocols.  An accounting office in a suburban office park will be different than a construction site in downtown Boston.  You can ask.  Your employer has a responsibility to maintain a safe workplace.
  2. If your employer rents your office space, your landlord likely has additional responsibilities. If there is a common lunch or break room, lounge areas, restrooms or cafeteria, these spaces all have additional sanitation protocols.  Some areas may even be off limits for a period of time.  Many landlords are shutting down onsite gyms or common areas.  The thought behind this is they are trying to ensure social distancing.
  3. Ask about flexibility. Your company may offer some flexibility.  Some employers are encouraging flexible schedules over the summer to minimize the number of employees in the office.  Your company might approve a gradual return to the workplace.  As an example, some of our clients are asking employees to return two days per week vs. five days per week during the week of July.
  4. Your employer should enforce social distancing and hand washing and/or the use of hand sanitizer. We have had one client discipline an employee for not following social distancing requirements.  Employers should be diligent about enforcing these requirements.
  5. Ask about the configuration of the office. Some of our clients are using vacant offices or conference rooms to help with social distancing.
  6. Rumors fly during stressful times. Be careful to focus on facts.

An employer can require you to return to the office.  Most employers are offering flexibility.  You can choose not to return to work, but you may be risking your role.  Contact your manager.  Explain your fears.  Ask for a bit of flexibility.  One of our clients had a very anxious employee who worked a few hours over a weekend and then felt comfortable returning to the office the following workweek.  If you feel like your anxiety is interfering with your ability to return to work, you may want to contact your physician and/or your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) about your concerns.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Boston.com Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.

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