Feeling Pressured to Return to Work? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I lost my identical twin brother to COVID late last spring. Of course there was no service, and I organized a Zoom event that was almost too sad to bear. A cousin was also infected, and lived, but has many brain-related long-hauler symptoms and has had to go on disability. This leads me to suspect that possibly, genetically, I may have real reason to worry.

My company just announced it will be reopening on April 1 and everyone is expected to be back in the office on that day. The way the vaccine rollout is going where I live, I can’t imagine I will have a chance to get mine by that date. I have no underlying conditions and am only 42. I am married to a health care worker and she got her vaccine, so I don’t worry about her. At the beginning we were on high alert, but thankfully she managed to stay safe.

What worries me most is that many of my colleagues are anti-mask and do not believe COVID is a real risk. Clearly, I have deep, painful experience of how real it is.

I talked to my boss about my concerns and he was not at all interested in hearing it. There are enough changes and big deals going on that he just can’t be bothered to lobby on my behalf. My performance has not given him cause to question my desire to continue working from home until I can get the vaccine. In fact, I am far more productive working from home than from the office—I never would have known that until this past year. Eliminating my commute and gaining quiet time I can’t get at the office have definitely helped me get more done.

I find myself looking for another job even though I am deeply invested in the one I have and I do like the company I work for, their rigid policies notwithstanding. My boss generally doesn’t interfere with me—but neither is he an advocate for me as a person, obviously.

I am so stressed out by this whole thing. I am losing sleep and finding it hard to concentrate on my work.

Trapped & Resentful


Dear Trapped & Resentful,

Because we weren’t having enough fun, huh? Let’s review: you have been dealing with the fear of the COVID-19 virus, you were worried sick about your wife for months on end, and then you had the body blow of the loss of your brother. So even before your company’s announcement, you had adrenaline (the fight-or-flight neurotransmitter) and cortisol (a stress hormone) coursing through your system for over a year. This is not good.

Even if you didn’t have to go back to the office, I would highly recommend you do everything in your power to reduce your stress level. Google around and find some resource (there are so many!) for how to manage stress and anxiety. Mindfulness, breathing, meditation, yoga, prayer, exercise (even just going for a walk helps), journaling. If you have a dog or cat, spend some time just loving it up. It does wonderful things for an anxious brain, a galloping heart, and the soul.

Then you might want to get some support for dealing with your grief. One thing to know is grief is exhausting—and when compounded by fear and uncertainty, it is bound to feel like you are carrying a boulder around. Find a support group or a counselor and spend time taking care of yourself that way. After my mother died, I walked into walls for a year and there was nothing like COVID going on to make things even worse. Bereavement is a big deal. I urge you to take it seriously and get some help.

Now let’s talk about this work situation. I say WOW. Just wow. I am amazed your company is willing to put its people at risk. It is also hard to understand your boss’s lack of empathy. You might think about sharing this article on the importance of psychological safety with him—but would he read it? Probably not. So I say escalate to HR. They must understand the risks and possibility of a lawsuit, if not from you, from anyone who is freaked out—or worse, who contracts the virus. Possibly they can make an exception for you to work from home until you achieve maximum immunity two weeks after the second vaccine. Or they can approve some time off? Or you could take PTO if you have enough saved up?

I really think you need to take a stand for your own well-being by escalating this and involving someone who can help you out. Otherwise, your stress will continue to build and you could end up with some real regrets. I would hate for you to have regrets. I hate regrets. The best way to avoid the woulda-shoulda-couldas in the future is to take care of yourself now.

If no one in your company can help you, it probably makes sense to look for another job. Companies that aren’t willing to be flexible may have a big surprise ahead, since remote work is so much more acceptable now than it was before the pandemic. I know of several people who had to turn down jobs with their dream company before the pandemic because they didn’t have the option to move, but have joined up now that they can work remotely.

It has been said (by enough people that I can’t find a credible attribution) that resentment is like taking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die. And you don’t need any more yuck than you already have going on.

So. Do something. Take Action. You will be so much the better for it.

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

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