Warding Off Workplace Hugs During the Pandemic

Dear DW,

My colleagues and I are returning to the workplace, and I am worried that people I used to hug will still hug me. Though I am vaccinated, I don’t feel safe with that level of intimacy yet. How should I handle this?

Signed, Hesitant Hugger

Dear Hesitant,

After dealing with the pandemic for more than a year, it’s understandable that you have some reservations about going back to some of the norms we engaged in before, such as hugs and handshakes. However, “the decision to engage in those norms is up to you and your comfort level, and if you’re feeling ambivalent about those return hugs, it’s perfectly acceptable to be cautious and avoid them,” says Akhila Satish, a career coach and CEO of New York–based training company Meseekna.

Chances are, you’re not alone in your fears, Satish points out. “My guess is that your coworkers are feeling the same sort of anxieties that you are, and you’ll all be able to talk about your boundaries and comfort levels once you return.”

With that said, don’t keep your fears all bottled up. It’s important to be honest with your manager and your colleagues about what you need to feel safe.

“Be up front about your wishes to keep some distance, while also engaging in other ways that make the moment a little less awkward,” suggests Satish. “Try cracking a joke about the situation or doing an elbow bump instead. That way, you’re still engaging in the office culture, but also setting boundaries right off the bat.”

Some workplaces may have had policies in place about hugging before the COVID-19 outbreak for other reasons. In fact, you may want to think twice about engaging in workplace hugs regardless of the pandemic, as there have been some legal cases in which employees have described unwanted hugs as creating a hostile working environment.

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