woman wearing a protective mask for the return to the workplace

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Mental Health Experts Discuss Anxiety of Returning to In-Person Workplaces

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At the beginning of 2020, we had no idea how much our lives would soon change and how many challenges we would have to overcome.

Two years ago, as the pandemic worsened, we were forced to change our daily routines — and the way we work was no exception. As a result, working from home became very popular — and, for most people, the new normal. But now, as companies continue to reopen their in-person workplaces or strike up partnerships with operators for flexible coworking spaces in markets such as New York City, or San Francisco, we wondered how employees felt about yet another shift in how they work.

With that in mind, CommercialCafe asked mental health professionals for their insights on:

  • How the mental health of individuals has changed in the last two years
  • How these changes might affect their return to the workplace
  • Why people may be having anxiety about returning to the office
  • How to overcome this type of anxiety
  • Ways to adapt to changes in the workplace and work/life balance

Read on to find out more.

Meet our Experts

Clair Reynolds Kueny, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor & Program Director – I-O Graduate Programs (MS & Certificates) at Missouri University of Science & Technology

Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.

Organizational & Leadership Development Leader, Steve Nguyen

Cort W. Rudolph, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Industrial & Organizational Psychology at Saint Louis University

How do you think the mental health of individuals may have changed during two years of working from home?

Clair Reynolds Kueny

People are burned out. They are exhausted from never fully onboarding to a new remote work schedule. They are exhausted from patchwork ‘Band-Aid’ solutions for two years as policies and expectations shifted frequently. While some may have found better work/life ‘balance,’ others may have never found a good dynamic between the two. And, just as employees probably believed they finally found a new equilibrium, now things are shifting again.

Steve Nguyen

There’s no question that the mental health of employees has changed as a result of working remotely due to the COVID pandemic. Being isolated and working in isolation from others have added to the loneliness epidemic. Although not everyone is ‘alone’ — especially if they work and live with others in the same house or apartment — there can certainly still be feelings of loneliness. The other thing is that we’re now more socially awkward in greeting one another, in holding a conversation, and in maintaining relationships due to lack of in-person contacts with one another over the past two years. It’s strange to say this, but people are now unsure how to act around other human beings.

Despite all the positives and advantages, much of what’s required in remote working is interacting via video (that is, video calls and meetings). Studies have found that requiring and having to participate in too many video meetings is mentally and emotionally taxing on the human mind and body.

What’s more, experts contend that humans are social creatures and we function better when we are around other people. Indeed, it’s been argued that our human need to physically connect with one another is as strong and as fundamental as our need for food and water.

Cort W. Rudolph

It is important to understand that the influence of the pandemic has not been universal and that people’s experiences with mental health challenges are highly individualized now, as they are always. As such, it is quite hard to say what effect working from home has had on any given individual over the course of the past two years. Some people thrive while working from home, whereas others clearly struggle.

It is also important to understand that the pandemic is not a causal variable. Its influence has been felt nearly universally by everyone globally, albeit to varying degrees. Thus, attributing any individual level phenomenon (psychological or otherwise) to the pandemic is quite challenging and, in many cases, may be impossible to do unambiguously.

What we do know is that the pandemic has not been a universally negative experience for all individuals, and our research variously suggests differential patterns of psychological well-being and closely related phenomena (for example, work fatigue) over the course of the pandemic. For example: https://psycnet.apa.org/fulltext/2020-52957-001.pdf and https://psyarxiv.com/bqxg7

How may these changes affect returning to work post-pandemic?

Steve Nguyen

I think there’s a fascinating interplay between the COVID pandemic’s forced-to-work-remotely experiment and the current strong U.S. labor market that puts American workers in the driver’s seat.

There’s an interesting talk on a new podcast called As We Work with host Tess Vigeland by The Wall Street Journal. In an episode titled, ‘Hybrid Work, the Big Quit, C-Suite Empathy: Pandemic Changes at Work’ with WSJ Life & Work Coverage Chief, Nikki Waller, and WSJ Business Reporter Chip Cutter that say there are various reasons why workers do not want to return to the physical office workspace, and one of the main reasons is simply because they just don’t want to.

There’s now a sense of power on the part of workers due to this current hot labor market (with more openings than there are applicants), and employees know they can get away with wanting more. In addition, many people have spent the past two years working remotely and not going out (due to COVID). As a result, some workers have money saved up, so there’s not that (usual) fear of not having a job or getting a paycheck.

We can see this play out with more workers demanding more from their companies and organizations struggling to hire or retain their employees if they aren’t able to meet some of the demands or expectations of their employees.

Cort W. Rudolph

Again, it is difficult to say how an individual’s experiences during the pandemic, especially those associated with mental health challenges, would affect returning to work post-pandemic — especially because we are still very much in the middle of the pandemic.

Why do you think people are feeling anxious about returning to the office?

Steve Nguyen

I think much of it is that people have settled into their routine of working remotely and this return to the office will, no doubt, disrupt this work routine and cause uncertainty in what employees thought or felt was finally something they had finally gotten accustomed to. For example, for some employees, their routines during the past two years were juggling working remotely while also providing child and/or senior care. So, part of what’s anxious for them is to now find ways to secure child and/or senior care for their children and/or elderly parents.

Related to the topics of childcare and senior care is that women typically carry this responsibility and working remotely had provided a bit of respite from the logistics of having to navigate commuting to and from work with childcare. The return-to-the-office mandate will disrupt the routines and schedules that these caregivers had created and grew accustomed to.

Cort W. Rudolph

People are feeling anxious about returning to the office, in part, because the pandemic is not over and the primary means by which people are infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 is through aerosolized respiratory fluids, which tend to occur when people are near one another, such as working together in an office.

What are some tips for overcoming this type of anxiety?

Steve Nguyen

In my opinion, the onus should not be on the individual employees to figure this out on their own. If we place the burden of having employees learn to figure out what’s anxiety-producing and come up with their own solutions, then we will have learned nothing from these past two years.

The key is for employers and organizations to change and adjust to better help their workforce adapt to a very VUCA world (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity). Companies need to talk to and partner with their employees to figure out what’s needed and how to move forward.

That said, it is still critical that employees communicate with their supervisors and leaders about what might be causing anxiety for them and co-create action plans to either avoid anxiety-provoking scenarios or lessen the impact when anxiety-causing events or situations arise.

Cort W. Rudolph

Certainly, remaining vigilant and taking proactive prophylactic measures are important to reducing this anxiety (for example, wearing high-quality masks and social distancing to the extent possible; getting vaccinated and boosted). Perhaps the most effective means of reducing anxiety about returning to the office is to simply not return to the office — which, to some extent, may be reflected in the ‘great resignation’ phenomenon we are seeing currently (such as people seeking new jobs in safer work environments).

How can individuals adapt to the changes the pandemic brought to the workplaces?

Steve Nguyen

Some ways to adapt to changes are to take an internal locus of control perspective; be happy and look for positives; and adopt a growth mindset. Individuals with an internal locus of control believe their behaviors are guided by their personal decisions and efforts and they have control over those things they can change and let go of things that are beyond their control. Research has shown that happy employees have about 31% higher productivity, 37% higher sales and three times higher creativity. The more good and positive things we can spot and reflect on, the more good and positive things we will see and experience. Finally, according to Carol Dweck, individuals who believe their talents can be developed through hard work, good strategies, and input from others have a growth mindset. Thus, to sum up, when we believe in an internal locus of control, when we seek out the positives, and when we adopt a growth mindset, we’ll be in a much better position to deal with the constant and disruptive changes that come our way.

Cort W. Rudolph

People use a multitude of strategies for coping with stressful experiences. Our research shows that viewing [the] pandemic as a controllable experience, using active coping strategies and positively reframing the pandemic can help to bolster employee’s psychological wellbeing. See: https://psycnet.apa.org/fulltext/2020-52957-001.pdf.

How should people seek work/life balance after another shift in how they do their jobs?

Steve Nguyen

This notion of work/life balance is so elusive. It’s like looking for Big Foot or finding a unicorn. I think it might be more helpful to think more along the lines of work/life integration. There’s no right formula and it’s different for each person. I think the COVID pandemic has shown us that there isn’t really (and there truly never was) a work/life balance. During the past two years, many of us have had to work in the same places that we lived. That is, we worked out of our homes or apartments, and the lines between work and home life were frequently blurry, with work creeping into and overtaking much of our lives.

As we move forward in 2022, in this strange, new world of work and life uncertainty, each one of us will need to reassess and recalibrate our own priorities. Whether that is mental/emotional health and well-being or prioritizing family and time outside of work to be with our family members, whatever these priorities are and how we rank them will determine how (and to what extent) we integrate our work into our lives or our lives into our work.

Cort W. Rudolph

This is a hard question to answer because the ‘balance’ people can strike between work and family roles is going to be highly individualized and is largely gendered (for example, women bear the brunt of managing family demands and especially so during the pandemic).

What should employees expect from their employers during this transition?

Clair Reynolds Kueny

I think there is a difference between what employees should expect from their employers versus framing it as what employers should expect to provide. Employers should expect to provide their employees with an opportunity to share concerns they have about returning to work and have an open conversation about how to productively address those concerns. Maybe the concerns are related to health and safety. Maybe they are about reintroducing a new schedule, etc. There should be open dialogue about these concerns and how they can be addressed for the employee, the team and the organization. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution here.

Steve Nguyen

Employees (thanks to the current hot job market) are now in the driver’s seat and many have been quite vocal in letting companies know that they expect organizations to adjust to and make remote, hybrid or in-office work more equitable. We’ve seen employees push back against corporate mandates requiring them to come back into the office with many knowledge workers and tech employees demanding to be able to continue to work remotely. At the same time, there’s also been a movement to make pay/salary more transparent by sharing pay ranges in the advertised job positions.

Employees are no longer satisfied with some of the typical office perks that companies had touted in the past (such as gym, free food, foosball tables, etc.) and are demanding more services related to mental health and well-being (such as counseling, mental health days off, etc.) and career development (such as coaching, learning, employee training and development, etc.).

Cort W. Rudolph

Organizations have a ‘duty of care’ to their employees. It is the responsibility of the organization to ensure the health and safety of their workforce. Employees should expect and demand this from their employers.

Are there any other insights you would like to add?

Clair Reynolds Kueny

We are, hopefully, in an employee-focused movement right now. Organizations are losing people not because of the economy or job availability, but because other organizations are more competitive in the benefits and supportive work environment that they can provide. If organizations want to retain employees moving forward, the way to do that is to recognize and focus on the key impact employee well-being has on the functioning of the organization as a whole. Employee well-being should be considered part of every organization’s recruitment, selection, retention, talent management and organizational development/culture strategy moving forward.

Steve Nguyen

My hope is for companies and employers to not only better understand remote or hybrid equity (making work more equitable and inclusive) but, more importantly, to implement and incorporate some of these lessons into improving the working conditions and working locations/requirements for their employees.

As organizational leaders, let us apply the painful, yet helpful, insights and lessons learned from these past two years of working remotely to bettering the lives of our employees. After all, no matter what businesses we are in or what services we provide, it is our employees that make it possible for our organizations to not only survive, but thrive.

Cort W. Rudolph

It is important to point out the challenges inherent in trying to generalize narratives about the pandemic (especially those associated with mental health and well-being) and assume that they are necessarily valid and universal. This is a very complex issue that requires a great deal of nuance to unpack.

If you found this article useful and informative, please feel free to check out our Expert Insights & Roundup Series.

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