We continue to live in a ‘wait and see’ mode. We are waiting until employers make firm decisions about return to work plans. And we will soon see if those plans will align with our new lifestyles formed during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the pushback to returning to pre-pandemic office life is growing. An April 2021 survey by FlexJobs found that 60% of women and 52% of men would quit their jobs if they were not allowed to continue working remotely at least some of the time. And while searching for a new job, 69% of men and 80% of women said that remote work options are among their top considerations.
Two Sides at Work
There are definitely two sides to the debate of going back to work in-person. Some people have already taken the plunge and are loving the return to civilization. They are the type of people who enjoy having lunch with colleagues, engaging in water cooler chats and making presentations in person rather than via Zoom. They truly missed the human interaction of the office and the people they didn’t see in person for over a year.
Others are dragging their feet and dreading the return to in-person work. They worry about how it will change their new lifestyles and the routines they’ve adopted during the pandemic. They are asking themselves:
- Who will walk the newly adopted dog?
- How will I balance childcare?
- When will I find time to maintain my work out routine?
- What about my side hustle I took on for extra money?
- Am I ready to return to socializing after such a long time of distancing myself from others?
- Will my family be able to take care of themselves without me there during the day?
- Am I really happy in my career?
They worry about losing the time they gained from not having to commute to work. It’s easier to blend work and life when your commute is a room away instead of two hours in traffic on the interstate.
Other aspects have to do with health and safety issues related to the pandemic:
- What will my job look like when I return?
- Will I be distanced from co-workers?
- What will be my company’s mask policy?
- Do I have the tools and skills to do my job if it has changed?
- Is my organization financially safe?
- Will my colleagues be vaccinated?
- How dangerous will this Delta variant of the virus prove to be?
Anxiety at Work
Even as vaccines become increasingly available, many people are experiencing return-to-work anxiety and stress, especially for those who have no control over whether they can continue to work remotely. A December survey from the U.S. Census Bureau found that 42% of adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, up from 11% in previous years.
Some of that anxiety relates to being called back to work before it’s completely safe. A national survey by Weber Shandwick and KRC Research found that nearly half of employees worry about this, and only 6% said they would be comfortable returning to work when their employer said it was safe to do so. 80% of those surveyed also said companies need to make changes to protect employee health and safety.
But since the path to back-to-work is still unclear for a lot of people, we are seeing more anxiety generated by the unknown. Anxiety can produce fatigue, concentration problems, increased use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, and worsening of existing health conditions. There is evidence that prolonged stress can lead to heart disease and a compromised immune system.
The Brain’s Take
The human brain is designed to create patterns to keep us safe. When we are uncertain about what to expect in the future, our fear systems are activated. We either fight (defend/attack/blame) or flight (avoid/freeze/run), but when we act in fear, our intelligence is dulled. Our thoughts are muddled, we are easily distracted and our decision-making skills become more biased which could lead to poor choices.
Our body also increases its heart rate and blood pressure. This sends more blood to our heart and muscles, and our respiration rate increases. We become vigilant and tense. Our bodies are on full alert.
When we are threatened or triggered in some way, the region of the brain called the amygdala is activated. That part of the brain is very reactionary, and it’s not always rational. This could lead to feeling out of control, because we often don’t know how to respond to the thoughts that are creating the fear.
To combat the fear, we need to strengthen the prefrontal cortex of our brain, a region important in decision making and social behavior. This part of our brain allows us to learn about and recognize emotional cues in others in order to more effectively navigate social situations. It lets us manage our emotions and risk more effectively.
How to Manage Anxiety
The first step in managing anxiety is recognizing the emotional state you are in. By simply identifying and naming it, you lessen it. It removes you slightly from the emotion – literally moving your thoughts away from the amygdala and strengthening your prefrontal cortex.
Identifying times when you feel symptoms of anxiety such as restlessness, fatigue, irritability, worry or trouble sleeping and labeling it as such can help you feel in control of what happens next. It’s why I spent so much time creating a list of over 850 words to describe feelings, emotions and moods as a reference tool for people to expand their vocabulary and therefore, build their emotional intelligence.
You also need to understand that it’s okay to feel how you are feeling. Show yourself some compassion during this time. Research shows that when people try to suppress emotions, they arouse the sympathetic nervous system associated with that fight/flight response.
Understand your triggers and how to deal with them. The first thing I teach all of my executive coaching clients is how to perform deep diaphragmatic breathing because it is, hands down, the fastest way to slow your body’s physiological response to stress.
When you start to feel stressed, take two minutes to perform this exercise.
- Sit in a comfortable position. You could also lie down or lean against a wall for support.
- Breathe in through your nose, concentrating on filling your belly with air like a balloon.
- Hold your breath for a count of 6, then, exhale slowly through your mouth until your belly flattens. Rinse, repeat until your body softens and your tension is released.
Accept that life is different now. Turn toward your support system of friends, family and your coach as you adjust to this new way of life. Talking our way through a crisis in the presence of a supportive listener, rather than holding it in alone, is one of our best ways of gaining helpful feedback, putting the situation into perspective and sensing that we are not alone.
Also keep in mind that others may be facing similar challenges, which makes this time a great opportunity to be more empathic and compassionate as we all re-enter a more social life.
In order to be able to cope with stress and apply rational thinking, you must be able to understand what you can control and what you cannot control in any situation. You can empower yourself to take action in the immediate situation.
For example, if you must return to in-person work, you have the ability to take certain steps to make you feel safe. Wearing a mask, washing your hands more frequently and maintaining a certain distance from others are all actions you can take to put your mind at ease.
If you have developed routines during your work-from-home life that you want to maintain in your in-person work, make these non-negotiable. If you started your morning with a few moments of quiet time or took a lunchtime walk, those are still possible to maintain once you return to the office.
It also helps to develop an accurate anticipation of what will be expected of you at the office. Communicate with your supervisor so that everyone is on the same page regarding expectations.
If you realize that your in-person job no longer works for you, you can also take control of the situation by developing a plan on how to change your situation. Schedule time in your week to work on your resume (or engage a master resume writer for even better results), solidify your job search strategy and improve on your interview skills.
As we all return to once-comfortable but now unfamiliar routines, it’s going to be important to deal with stress in a positive way. Those who do usually have:
- A sense of self-determination
- A feeling of involvement in life’s experiences, and an ability to change negatives into positives.
Self-determination refers to an ability to control or adapt to the events of everyday living. Rather than seeing ourselves as helpless in trying to overcome obstacles, we can begin to define ourselves as problem-solvers. We can remember times when we have been successful in solving problems and then see ourselves in those terms.
We can learn to trust that we will have success in meeting life’s difficulties. When we take this approach, we can begin to face problematic situations as a challenge which, when resolved, can bring new and exciting opportunities into our lives.