How to have a healthy return to campus

Easing back well means paying attention to both your emotional and physical needs. Here's expert advice from your colleagues.

Biophysical Chemistry Professor Doug Barrick, wearing a mask, stands by a blackboard in front of his class

Image caption: Professor Doug Barrick teaches a biophysical chemistry class at Homewood in February.


Johns Hopkins wellness specialist Essence Pierce soon will be back in her office after a year of working from home, and she intends to make the move—and her office environment—as welcoming and healthful as possible. "I want to bring some nature indoors; nature has a calming effect and can reduce stress," she says, describing plans to put new plants on her desk not only for their beauty but as air filters, and also replace an earlier photo of her son, now 4, with a more recent one. "He's grown 2 inches since then," she says, adding, "I think everyone needs to find ways to reinvigorate or reimagine their workspace. Declutter it. Clean it. Redecorate. Bring some color into it. Put some artwork on the walls. Make ergonomic readjustments."

She's not the only one facing the transition from home to office. Thousands of Hopkins employees will be returning to their on-site workspaces in the coming weeks and will likely confront a number of challenges resulting from the move. These include, among other things, dealing with the daily commute, seeking to make offices more inviting, finding someone to walk the dog, forgoing such at-home pleasures as "desk naps," and resuming fitness and good nutrition habits, which also may mean losing those extra pounds put on at home.

Most important, workers will have to cope with the end of isolation and Zoom meetings and begin to interact in person with their colleagues. Many have missed the human connection. At the same time, more than a year of solitude has left them out of practice.

"Socialization is a skill, and many of us have gotten rusty," says Neda Gould, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences in JHU's School of Medicine and director of the Mindfulness Program. "Some people will have difficulty, which is perfectly normal after a year at home. My advice is to be gradual and gentle with yourself. Maybe begin socializing with just a few people at work, then spend the rest of the day inside your office—if you can—and not feel you have to reintegrate with others all at once. Or, if it's possible, start by going in for half a day. Make it as gradual as possible."

Alice Payne Merritt, an expert in social and behavior change communication and deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs, agrees that employees need to take things slowly, recognizing that their workplace may not resemble what it was before.

"Change is a process, and behavior changes take time," she says. "I've heard people say, 'We'll just go back to the way it was.' I don't think that exists. We can't just snap a finger and say we're back in the office and everything is the same. It's not. We've all been through a difficult experience and need to realize we're not going back to the way it was in 2019. The world is different, the workplace is different, and we are different. We've all gotten adjusted to the how and why of working at home. Now we have to change yet again. We need to be patient with each other, and with ourselves, as we go through yet another change."

Among other things, going back means you'll probably have to give up certain at-home indulgences. But you can almost certainly find acceptable substitutes. "As we get back into the world, we have to realize there will be a lot of things we don't have control over," Gould says. "When you are at home, you can take some breaks and go eat chocolate. That's what I did. Or take a five-minute nap at your desk. But you can still close your eyes for a few minutes, or give yourself a break and go outside. Put a small water fountain on your desk that makes a soothing noise, or wear some headphones and listen to a calming app. Or just take three deep breaths. Think about what was helpful to you at home, and find ways to translate that into your workspace."

She adds: "This is going to be different for everybody. Some people will look forward to it. Some will dread it. And many will be in between. It's important to make space for all of these emotions, as well as any new ones, as we transition back."


Rush hour is back. This means so is the often frustrating commute. But you can make it more pleasant. Pierce suggests audio books, even though she lives close enough to her office to walk. Gould listens to podcasts. "That's something I look forward to," Gould says. "If you find podcasts you enjoy, sometimes the longer you're in the car, the better."

Merritt prefers National Public Radio but points out that commuting time also can become a valuable shift between work and personal life. "We haven't had that for 18 months," she says. "At home, when you wake up, you turn on your laptop. Commuting allows you to get your mind in gear to start thinking about work-related things. You can ponder them without having to jump right into a conversation or an email." To be sure, the downside of commuting is losing some work time. "What's that going to look like?" Merritt says. "We just don't know. It's sort of a grand social experiment."

Diet and fitness—and mask wearing

Employees also have to think about maintaining their fitness, eating healthfully and—with the recent reinstatement of the indoor mask requirement—adjusting to wearing a mask for many hours a day after not having to wear one at all.

"Suddenly having to wear a mask for many consecutive hours can be an insult to your skin," says Farah Succaria, an assistant professor of dermatology in the JHU School of Medicine, pointing out that the friction can produce redness, irritation, and rashes and can exacerbate existing skin conditions, such as acne and eczema. "The skin around the nose and mouth is already sensitive, and this will just worsen things."

She recommends frequent moisturizing with an over-the-counter unscented moisturizing cream or petroleum jelly. "It's also important to keep washing your face during the day with a gentle cleanser, and frequently change the mask, if you can," she says. "If you are not using disposable masks, then be sure to wash the mask every day."

One pitfall of working at home is the tendency to gain weight and succumb to junk food snacks. A recent report from the American Psychological Association found that a majority of adults experienced "undesired weight changes," including those who said they have gained, on average, 15 to nearly 30 pounds.

"There is structure in the office, but when you are home, you are thrown into a routine without structure," says Amanda Podczerwinski, a clinical dietitian at Hopkins' Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington. "This can mean skipping meals or overeating at night. Also, there's more opportunity to snack. If you normally stock up on Doritos for the kids, you won't eat them in the office. But if you work at home, there are a lot more opportunities to walk over to that pantry. Also, food can be a comfort during times of isolation."

Her advice? "Make a plan of what you will be eating. Re-create that structure. Eat balanced meals, meaning half fruits and veggies, a protein, and a healthy starch, such as brown rice or quinoa. Pack some healthy snacks, pairing a protein and a fiber, such as a piece of fruit and string cheese, or an apple and peanut butter. Bring a water bottle and make sure you stay hydrated. And avoid the free food—pastries at breakfast meetings and doughnuts in the break room."

If you need additional support, JHU offers an employee discount on WW (Weight Watchers reimagined) and also plans to host a free meal prep and meal planning webinar at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 18. Sign up here.

Finally, if your exercise routine has slackened—many gyms and pools were shut down for months during the pandemic—it's time to get back into it. The university offers multiple online class options—some recorded, some live—for those seeking a return to regular workouts. JHU's employee wellness program, Healthy at Hopkins, recently launched a new platform, BurnAlong, accessible on all devices and free to all employees. You can invite as many as four family members or friends to join you.

"The great thing about BurnAlong is that there are live classes and recorded classes, so you can take them anytime," Pierce says. "You can find a place in the office and still take a noon class, or wait until you get home, or do it before you go to work, or do it with co-workers. You don't have to miss anything."

Employees can choose from among numerous BurnAlong classes, including workouts specifically designed for the office, cardio, mindfulness meditation, anger management, yoga, financial well-being, nutrition, and support for chronic conditions, such as arthritis. For stress, Pierce also suggests trying supportive apps such as myStrength and Calm and additional free Calm Together resources such as gratitude journals, a managing stress guidebook, or calm intention cards.

For now, JHU Athletics and Recreation's classes are virtual. But Jen Macko, assistant director of fitness, hopes that in-person workouts at the Homewood campus can return in the fall. If they're possible, she says, they will be offered multiple times throughout the day—early morning, lunchtime, and late afternoon. "People don't go to group fitness classes to work out by themselves," she says. "Each person may be on a different journey, but they all are doing same workout and really don't want to be doing it alone in their living room."

Whatever you choose, she says, try to stick with it. "As we move back into the workplace, it will be super important to reintegrate movement that makes you feel happy and relieves stress," she says. "Managing all these moving parts that are reentering your life will be easier to navigate if you have a positive and constructive outlet for your energy."