Returning to Work After the Pandemic: Processing the Past, Preparing for the Future

Erin WileyArticles

Originally posted on, “5 Tips to Process the Return to Campus”
Author Erin Moran Wiley, MA, LPCC

As summer days get shorter and cicadas get louder, many of us can physically feel the academic year sneaking up on us. But this year, having made it through one of the most uncertain times in recent human history, it seems right to pause a moment and reflect before rushing forward to this next school year. As a clinical mental health counselor, I have seen how COVID, and the aftermath of the virus, have left many anxious, sad, lonely, stressed, and grieving. It’s true that people, in general, are resilient. That does not mean, however, that pressing forward after a cataclysmic event is what’s best for our mental and emotional health. I’d like to suggest five ideas to help us process through what has transpired over the last seventeen months, and I’ll also include some tips for helping our students manage as well.

1- Acknowledge the ways in which our lives have changed

For me personally this meant recovering from having contracted COVID, and subsequently learning to manage long-hauler symptoms; also, we sadly lost my father-in-law to COVID. But you didn’t have to contract COVID or lose a family member to have incurred significant losses. Small losses add up, and what seems small to one person can be quite significant to another. I’ve heard so many stories in my office: the loss of a student’s freshman year of college, diminished wages from having to stay home to be with school-aged children, the stress of having to learn a completely new way to do one’s job, no prom, no graduation, no funerals or weddings, marital struggles from lack of social support, and increased anxiety brought on by the fear of getting sick. Taking a moment to recount the ways in which our lives changed, both for the worse and for the better, enables us to categorize the events of that part of our lives and make sense of them.

2- Process through the feelings remaining from the last seventeen months

A lot happened in a short amount of time when you consider the ways in which the pandemic changed daily living for everyone. Here are some journal prompts to help you work through the thoughts and emotions associated with the loss and grief you may still be experiencing from COVID. Consider making a list of what you gained and lost during this time in a moment of quiet reflection. It is good for the brain to pause and process significant times in life like these, rather than to continue on with no memorializing of the events that defined the last year and a half. Time spent in reflection helps synthesize the occurrence of events with our personal emotional experience so that we can find/create meaning in those experiences. Consider taking some time to discuss with others, meditate on, or write out your thoughts and feelings based on these prompts:

  • My greatest pandemic loss personally is/was…
  • My greatest pandemic loss professionally is/was…​
  • The hardest part about the pandemic for me personally…​
  • The hardest part about the pandemic for me professionally…​
  • The greatest lesson I learned from my experience of the pandemic…

3- Learn to better manage emotions surrounding around returning to work

Sometimes when we have big, troubling, or unexpected emotions, we struggle to manage our reactions. Anger, fear, and frustration can get the best of us, leading us to act in ways that are uncharacteristic of our best selves. In moments where emotions need to be better managed, I suggest working through our internal experience with a trusted friend, therapist, or in a journal.

The very simple template I suggest to my therapy clients is as follows:

  • I feel __(emotion)_______​.  (Identify what the emotion is that you are experiencing)
  • When ___(situation/event)______​.  (Describe what happened that led to the emotion)
  • Because ____(reason)________​. (Try and identify what deeper reason may be behind your emotions regarding this incident)
  • I need ____(proposed solution)_______. (Identify and request that your need be met)

For example “I feel frustrated and angry that we still don’t have a definitive schedule for our committee meetings, because it leaves me feeling unheard and disrespected in my repeated request for us to prioritize getting this task accomplished. I need to know the dates we will be choosing by this Friday please.” Or, “I feel sad when it seems the people I’m spending time with are more interested in their phones than in me. That’s really hurtful and leaves me feeling that I’m unimportant to people I really care about. Can we please have some time tonight that’s free from electronics and maybe play a game instead of watching tv?” Identifying and speaking about our emotions and our needs does not guarantee they will be well received or met, but it gives us a much better chance of being understood by keeping the lines of communication open.

4- Rediscover/ rekindle the passion for our work again

Intrinsic motivation is difficult to come by… that’s why there are so many self-help books about it! As a therapist, one of the strategies that I have discovered works best for my clients (and myself) is to “fake it ‘til you make it”. I often remind people in therapy that perspiration precedes inspiration, and that starting a task that one doesn’t feel led to work on can lead to feeling more positively about the project in time. Spending time with colleagues or students who share our passion for our subject field can be an engaging way to rekindle our academic fire- particularly when the time spent together is for the sharing of ideas and the building of community. Every meeting doesn’t have to have a specific agenda to have a meaningful outcome. If you find over time that you continue to feel lethargic, sad, or underwhelmed by your work, consider reaching out to a professional who can help you explore what’s going on  for you emotionally. Sometimes we need help encouraging the flame within us, and there is no shame in that.

5- Create a self care plan 

Whether you are experiencing a lack of passion now, or facing burn-out in the future, having a plan for how to replenish your energy and renew your spirit is a smart idea. I believe in starting with the basics: a solid plan to get better quality sleep, higher quality nutrition, and more time moving our bodies. Beyond that, it is wise to consider what activities leave us feeling peaceful, joyful and satisfied. Consider ways to nourish your creative side, your adventurous side and your playful side. Make specific room in your schedule for free time that is unstructured so you can just sit and let your mind wander. Think of activities that make you lose track of time, that put you in a state of “flow”, and find ways to add them to your weekly schedule. If we don’t care for ourselves, we set the stage for burn out and overwhelm. It’s bad for us, but also the people we love and the students we teach. It’s a cliché but it’s true: you can’t pour from an empty cup. Find ways to replenish and renew yourself and commit to those activities by scheduling them today.

When it comes to our students, many of us are mentors or role models of adulthood: personally and professionally. By managing the changes that COVID brought us in healthy ways, we set the example for how the learners around us can best manage them for themselves. Consider welcoming back your students with an acknowledgement that we have collectively faced a really difficult time globally. Think about sharing with your class(es) what the experience was like for you. Consider how meaningful it would be for students to have a professor so invested in their health and well being  that they’d pause for a moment to simply discuss the impact this time has had on them. You might be the only person who demonstrates this sort of open emotional-processing for them. Don’t be afraid to openly discuss how you handle the emotional side of challenges at school. You will set the stage for students to comfortably process through their own emotions in a confident, unashamed way. Show acceptance by normalizing and validating any reactions or emotions they share. Praise them for their resiliency, for returning to their schooling, for making it through despite whatever challenges they may have encountered. Prepare students by reminding them that this semester may be different, difficult, or potentially compromised in some ways, but that you are someone to whom they can turn. Know the resources that your school has to offer students so that you can be prepared should you need to make referrals for academic, spiritual or emotional support. In these ways you can serve as a support beyond academic knowledge, helping to best shape the minds and hearts of the students we serve. This past year is a time we will not soon forget with it’s many long lasting implications; by prioritizing our emotional health and sharing with our students how we’ve done that, we stand to come out ahead in the end: more resilient, better adjusted and healthier than before.

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