Up to two million vulnerable people shielding in England have been told they can return to work, but for many, it’s not an easy decision.
Those who have been shielding since March include people in high-risk categories, such as those who have had an organ transplant, are undergoing chemotherapy and radiotherapy, are receiving immunosuppressant drugs, or have severe respiratory conditions.
After months stuck at home, clinically vulnerable people have been told they can return to their normal lives. But uncertainty and anxiety have become overwhelming for many.
“When lockdown eased, people in this category still needed to shield. They were aware of the danger from the outside world and many may have been living in fear that their condition would be critical or even lead to fatality,” says Yuko Nippoda, psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy.
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“Many people in this ‘shielding group’ will have had to develop their own way of survival. The boundaries inside and outside the home were very clear,” she adds. “One was a comfortable zone which felt safe and the other was a frightening zone. Some people may have developed anxiety and fear about returning to the outside world, believing that it’s dangerous and scary.”
For others, having to shield from the outside world may have made them feel isolated and lonely. “They might have lost confidence to work with others physically,” Nippoda adds. “On top of this, a lack of energy and motivation means that returning to work will be more difficult for them than the rest of us.”
Take your time
If you’ve been shielding at home for months, you may need to get used to the outside world again first. Take it slowly and pace yourself, rather than forcing yourself out straight away.
“Do not blame yourself if you still feel anxious and fearful, as the world is still dangerous and transition involves uncertainty. Take 10 minutes today, then 20 minutes tomorrow and you might start to feel more confident,” Nippoda says.
“When you are sure that you feel safe in the outside world, and you feel comfortable about the safety measures in your workplace, you will know that you are ready to return to work.”
Speak to your employer
If you’re concerned about going back to work, it’s important to speak to your employer. You may be able to work from home if you don’t feel happy commuting to the office.
“It is a big step for anybody who has been shielding for more than four months to return to work. The most important thing is to discuss and negotiate the working conditions with their employers,” Nippoda says.
“People in the ‘shielding group’ need to let employers know that they are still vulnerable as COVID-19 has not disappeared, and at the same time, they need to find their way to feel safer.”
Follow the safety guidelines
You’re likely to feel more confidence within yourself if you make sure you’re observing all the guidelines, including washing your hands with soap for 20-30 seconds frequently, carrying hand sanitiser and wearing face masks.
“Also, remember that the infection rate is different, depending on the area,” Nippoda says. “You might find it more manageable if you obtain information about the infection rate and if it’s low, you might feel more relaxed and find it easier to go out to work.” And if it is high, you may be able to negotiate working from home.
Speak to others who have been shielding
It can be tempting to bottle up fear and anxiety about returning to work, but it’s important to talk to people about how you feel. It’s also helpful to speak to others who have been shielding about how they have managed to feel safe.
“To avoid isolation and feelings of loneliness, speaking to people is very important, as well as asking for support as much as possible,” Nippoda says.