I don’t know about you, but I have found it exciting AND challenging coming into the real world again after a year and a half of isolating and being physically distanced. 

Exciting because I have really missed seeing friends and family (and having a haircut!), and challenging because it doesn’t feel over yet. With the news about infection numbers increasing again and the whole Delta variant thing, anxiety feels on the rise again too. We have had the promise of a kind of “normal” and now it’s mixed with the fear and unease of what dangers could be next.

I am hearing the same anxious feelings from friends, family, and clients. This wasn’t just a weekend staying home…. This was a long and stress-filled period. Many people are feeling more than uncertain about rejoining the world and they are witnessing these same feelings in their colleagues and in the teams they lead.

If you feel this way personally or are dealing with this on your team, you are not alone. Regardless of people’s living situation, work condition, vaccination status, or masking comfort, many are experiencing a sense of dread and fear.

It turns out there is a name for this – it’s called “Cave Syndrome”. When I heard this term, it really resonated with me. These days feel like coming out of a dark cave, right? 

“Cave Syndrome” is characterized by feeling anxious or afraid about a return to society, even if you’re fully vaccinated. Its causes vary from person to person, with some hesitant to return to “normal” due to an ongoing fear of the disease and others having grown accustomed to—and even fond of—the solitude of the last year and a half.

A recent study by the American Psychological Association reported that 49 percent of surveyed adults anticipated being uncomfortable about returning to in-person interactions when the pandemic ends. It found that 48 percent of those who have received a COVID vaccine said they felt the same way.

It can feel like coming out of a cave and being unsure of what is outside. It can feel overwhelming and even scary at times. For some it is the fear of an infectious disease, for others it is the desire to hold on to the benefits of a more isolated life. Whatever the reason, Cave Syndrome is real and as leaders, we need to deal with it.

Are you experiencing Cave Syndrome? Are you leading people who are? Could this phenomenon be affecting your work colleagues, your team, your leadership?

Here are a few ideas that could help you lead yourself and your team through the dark cave and into the light:

  1. Accept that this is normal – there will be varying degrees of acceptance and comfort in our co-workers, employees, friends, and family – it is all okay and normal. 
  2. Suspend the judgement – if you or a team member is having a slow reentry, keep your judgement in check. Nobody benefits from being made wrong. Employ your empathy and stay compassionate.
  3. Be patient, with yourself and others – reintegration is a process, so celebrate the little accomplishments every day. 
  4. Stay informed – Continue to get all the information you can from your organization about what precautions they’re taking and how they plan to keep employees safe. It can be comforting to know that your company is developing and implementing guidelines that care about everyone’s health and safety.

This week, think about where the Cave Syndrome could be showing up and how you can use this recognition to be a better leader.

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