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Health, finances and a second COVID-19 wave: Employees returning to work are dealing with a host of anxieties, doctors and psychologists say

Secretaries Dael Szypulski, top, and Catherine Vega, bottom right, decorated their office window with a "We Miss You" message to students at Casimir Pulaski Elementary School in Meriden in May. Gov. Ned Lamont closed schools for the rest of the academic year due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Dave Zajac/Record-Journal via AP)
Secretaries Dael Szypulski, top, and Catherine Vega, bottom right, decorated their office window with a "We Miss You" message to students at Casimir Pulaski Elementary School in Meriden in May. Gov. Ned Lamont closed schools for the rest of the academic year due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Dave Zajac/Record-Journal via AP) (DAVE ZAJAC/AP)

Businesses are reopening and employees are returning to work after a nearly three-month absence brought on by the coronavirus. What’s wrong with this picture?

Plenty, say doctors and psychologists who warn that workers have changed in the months they worked from home or were unemployed. Fear of being infected at the workplace, financial worries in a weakened economy, child care problems or perhaps a second COVID-19 wave are some anxieties that weigh on employees.

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“We’ve never been here before,” said Marcos Iglesias, chief medical director at The Travelers Cos. Inc. “In many ways, we’re making it up as we go along.”

Iglesias, a family doctor by training, wrote a guide, “Emotional and social reintegration in the age of COVID-19” outlining how employers and workers can re-adjust to the workplace. The purpose was to “think things through, not ignore the physical and emotional issues,” he said.

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For example, elective surgery, even care for cancer, have been sidelined during the public health crisis, Iglesias said. “What are we going to see after this is all over?” he asked.

The American Cancer Society cited a survey in April in which 51% of those questioned reported some impact on their care due to the virus. Nearly one in four reported a delay in care or treatment. And 38% said COVID-19 is making it more difficult to afford care, due mostly to reduced work hours.

Express Scripts said in April research shows the number of prescriptions filled weekly for antidepressant, anti-anxiety and anti-insomnia medications increased 21% between Feb. 16 and March 15, reaching its peak the week ending March 15, when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.

Anxiety about the economy and lack of opportunities to work and make money are well-placed.

Unemployment nationally was 13.3% in May and is estimated at 19% in Connecticut. And the U.S. economy shrank by 5% between Jan. 1 and March 31, even before the full impact of the coronavirus, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.

Theresa Adams, senior knowledge adviser at the Society for Human Resource Management, said mental health issues will be prominent as workers return to their job sites. Many employers are expanding benefits under insurance plans. More virtual mental health services via telemedicine are available, and some employers are waiving co-pays, she said.

Cathleen Swody, an executive coach, said workers returning to their workplaces will have to re-adjust to habits and practices they set aside, such as commuting.

“It’s a transition in a cloud of ambiguity,” she said.

While some employees are eager to get back to the office to focus on working “without distraction,” others are coping with uncertainty about the future, such as their health and providing for child care once they’re no longer home, she said.

Other questions concern the new look of workplaces with fewer employees and larger spaces to enforce social distancing, Swody said.

“What’s allowed and what’s not allowed? she said. “How many people are allowed in the bathroom and the cafeteria? Think about how that works logically. It’s awkward.”

The adjustment will be difficult for owners of small businesses, too.

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“It’s hard to drop what’s taken place and go back to where you were,” said Bob Sulick, a co-owner with his wife, Danita, of Mulberry Street Pizza in Manchester and Mulberry Too in Glastonbury.

For example, he said some workers who were laid off at the start of the pandemic are not returning. “They get more money in unemployment,” he said.

Other employees are balking because “families don’t want them to be out there and bring anything back to the house,” Sulick said.

Jonathan Lindberg, a Plainville optician in business 30 years, said he was unsure of the right course to confront the coronavirus.

“I’m not an epidemiologist,” he said. “I’m not afraid of getting sick. If I get sick, I’ll get healthy,” said Lindberg, 61.

But he said his staff “was freaking out about this.”

Lindberg, who resumed eye examinations one patient at a time on May 20 after being shut for two months, installed barriers and purchased thermometers and face masks. He came to work daily to handle emergency phone calls.

Lindberg’s financial hit was tremendous: His optical business, which typically generates $42,000 a month in sales, plunged to $6,500 in April, a drop of 85%. As a result, his three employees were without work and tapped Unemployment Insurance.

One employee concerned about her health will work no more than 17 hours a week, and Lindberg has restricted the schedule of his business to 32 hours.

Despite the public health crisis that damaged businesses and the economy, and the questions that remain about returning to the workplace, Sulick is optimistic about the next few months.

“I anticipate a pretty good summer going forward,” he said. “I think we’ll be back to normal sooner than people think.”

Stephen Singer can be reached at ssinger@courant.com.

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