Returning to Campus: Tips and ideas from Work/Life


In the last few weeks, I’ve had to catch myself saying the phrase “return to work” and quickly correct to “return to campus”. We’ve been working! That never changed. But for many of us who are looking to return to campus in some way shape or form, we are embarking on yet another new phase of this pandemic.

Recently Work/Life has held “return to campus” discussion groups. We also continue to meet individually with employees regarding their own transitions. Here are some of the main concerns that have been raised and the strategies explored.

Take a moment to recognize your baseline, where you are at today. Give yourself grace.

We’ve all been coping with varying types of grief. This includes grief for loss of concepts like a sense of normalcy, safety, experiences and roles. For many, the grieving process has been prolonged or delayed. Part of grief is operating in our everyday environments with the new reality of loss. A return to campus may bring that opportunity and catch us off guard with some significant grief-related feelings.

We are still dealing with pandemic related stress and uncertainty. Our bodies and brains have been on heightened alert for several years now and some of us are still particularly on alert for the wellbeing of loved ones who are immunocompromised.

On the flipside: Recognize the strengths and strategies you have implemented for the last two years in response to an unprecedented and unpredictable situation. These are well practiced skills you are bringing forward with you to this new time.

Remember “I” Statements

We cannot control other people's thoughts, feelings or actions. We CAN control our own behavior and how we communicate our needs. If someone is acting in a way that doesn't align with the same measures you have been taking, remember “I” versus “you” statements. “You” statements can feel accusatory and make someone defensive. “I” statements set clear boundaries and communicate your wants and needs.

So, for example, if someone you are talking to is standing too close for your comfort:

Rather than saying, "you need to step back", change it to an “I” message like, "I'm still not comfortable standing so close, so I'm going to take a step back."

Recognizing Fight or Flight

The amygdala in our brain has the main purpose of scanning for threats. When a threat is detected, our nervous system can respond in many ways including what's known as "fight or flight". We might experience increased heart rate, shortness of breath, tightening of muscles, or overwhelming feelings like wanting to get away or even aggression towards the perceived "threat". Each of us has dealt with our own perception of what is a threat in the last two years. For many of us, things that previously did not feel threatening, like crowds or a person close to you, may still put you in that state of flight or fight. Ahead of time, figure out what grounding exercises can be your “go-to” in the moment if needed.

Create a New Positive Feedback Loop

If you have spent your time primarily at home, this has likely reinforced the belief that you need to stay at home in order to stay safe…it’s worked out so far hasn’t it? The problem with this feedback loop is we never allow new information in to prove us otherwise. Everyone is going to have different risk tolerances. But if you are ready to try new situations, like working on campus, it can help to think in terms of creating a new feedback loop. If you’ve avoided campus for the last two years, you could start small by coming on campus for lunch. If it makes you feel safe, you wear your mask indoors to grab your food. Then maybe you eat outdoors. This does two things:

  • It helps you get feedback on the benefits of this new approach. Benefits like: seeing fellow employees, getting a change of scenery, not having to do your own cooking/dishes at home!
  • If you do so safely then your brain can start to recognize this as a safe thing to do. It’s giving yourself information you didn’t have before thus potentially reducing some anxiety or worry.

Build in Predictability and Rewards

The change of routine may be a lot for your brain to process. Think ahead to set yourself up for success. This change of routine may also bring fatigue, so plan ahead to make things easier for yourself when you are recovering.

  • The night before: prepare all snacks, supplements/pills, wallet, keys etc. to be in one spot.
  • If you have a particular coffee or breakfast treat that you enjoy, have it ready to treat yourself that morning. (Or maybe you’ll look forward to the coffee at work! My favorite at the break machines is to make a half-caf americano – one decaf espresso shot, one regular, and hot water.)
  • Plan for takeout, freezer meals, or quick meals like these suggestions from HCC Nutritionists. This way you can focus on resting and recharging that evening.
  • Dreading a commute? Download music or podcasts to provide comfort or entertainment. Or you could plan to call a friend or family member and use that time to catch up. For some, a commute may actually provide a rare opportunity for quiet.
  • Talk to your partner, children, or other household members about how your days are going to look different. If there are routines or traditions you’ve developed, especially ones that bring closeness, brainstorm how you can adapt them to your new routine.
    • If you’ve shared coffee every morning with your partner since working at home, perhaps one day of the week you can agree to alter schedules so you’ll have time together and that morning becomes a special tradition.
    • Are there parts of your child’s routine or household chores they can take a more active role in? The book Hunt, Gather, Parent has some great suggestions for this. Work/Life’s Lisa Allred is a former child therapist and can also talk to you about strategies.

A note on predictability: What is “predictable” might not mean the same thing every day. Especially if working a hybrid model, what is predictable for say your Tuesday and Thursday may look different than the other days of the week. Mental flexibility has been identified as a factor of resiliency and will help in this case.

Want more return to campus ideas? Be sure to check out this SAS Life blog post on 5 Tips for Successful Hybrid Meetings.


About Author

Katie Seavey Pegoraro

Sr Associate Work Life Program Manager

Katie Seavey Pegoraro supports employees with issues of stress and balance, providing tools and resources to cope when life feels overwhelming. Katie is a contact for those who may be coping with issues of mental health, substance use, or grief and loss. A young professional herself, Katie is a unique support to employees who are navigating the many life transitions that occur in your 20's and 30's.

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