As more of the population gets vaccinated and COVID-19 infections dip, many employers announce plans to return their workforces to the office. It’s a big operation — involving implementing safety protocols, making decisions about whether to embrace a hybrid work model and even purchasing new office spaces.
“Humans are creatures of habit. Originally the transition to working from home was overwhelming and anxiety-provoking, and difficult to adjust to. Now it’s been a year, and this is our new normal,” she says.
Negative anticipation — that’s anticipating all the difficult aspects of this transition (something humans are very good at) — can cause feelings of worry and anxiety for employees, Toledano says. But fortunately, there are things we can do to cope.
Expert tips for employees and leaders managing anxiety at work
We spoke to Dr. Toledano about how employees can take care of their mental health and well-being through this change and how employers can better support their staff.
1. Pay attention to the positive
A lot of the stress and anxious feelings people are experiencing about the return to the office, Toledano notes, may result from negative anticipation. Transitions are hard, especially when working from home has become the new norm. “Our brains typically prefer to focus on the costs of change rather than the benefits,” says Toledano.” But writing down the positive aspects of going back to work could help ease any discomfort. “What really helps is to say, ‘I can see right away all the negatives but let me sit down and write out what the benefits might be.” These could include being able to see old coworkers in-person, grabbing a meal with colleagues after work or even enjoying the greater structure of working outside of your space. Focusing on the upsides of returning to your desk can help strengthen your tolerance for more difficult aspects of this big shift.
2. Have patience and tolerance for others
To put it bluntly — change is difficult for everyone. No one (even your boss) knows exactly how to return to an office perfectly amidst a waning pandemic. So be patient with your employer and with yourself. “The employers are also going through their own challenges. When we understand and accept this, we’ll have more tolerance for ourselves and our employer. We’ll have more empathy,” says Toledano. On top of that, Toledano encourages employees to believe in their ability to manage this period of uncertainty: “We’ve already witnessed just how good we are at adjusting in the workplace when we all moved our offices home. Whatever is coming – whether it’s hybrid working or full-time at the office or even another shutdown, you can have faith in your ability to adjust as you go and your resilience to change.”
3. Share your concerns and limitations
It’s totally valid to have concerns about returning to the office. You might have safety concerns – like will social distancing be enforced, need childcare accommodations or simply feel your energy is lagging due to increased commute times and pandemic burnout. Depending on your comfort level, says Toledano, try sharing these things with your employer before or throughout your return to work so they can help make adjustments.
4. Respect your body and mind
Finally, respect your body and mind. “Even though we’re going back to the office, we’re still living in a pandemic,” says Toledano. “People are still struggling. The mental health crisis has not diminished.” In addition to reaching out to your company’s EAP for mental health support, Toledano emphasizes the need to listen to your internal cues. “If you’re having a difficult day and you’re less productive, try finishing a little early. Respect your body, respect your mind and don’t ignore these cues by pushing yourself until you break.”
Learn more about what employees need to know about the hybrid work model.
For organizations and leaders
1. Show tolerance and flexibility
According to Toledano, practicing patience with employees as they return to the office and being flexible to adjust to their needs is essential for supporting workers through this transition. “We can’t fall into the illusion of thinking back to the office means things are back to normal (…) People are emotionally and physically burnt out. Now add the pandemic fatigue and anxieties and negative anticipations for unknowns and put it all together, and it’s a recipe for mental health disaster.”
To show support to your employees, allow for initial fluctuation around work productivity, try entertaining new hybrid work models for those struggling and offer adjustments and support resources to those in need.
2. Communicate openly
You can reduce anxiety around uncertainty by being transparent with your employees about the return to work details. Let them know what work model you’re embracing, how safety protocols will be respected and what you’ll do in the case of a shutdown. When it comes to mental health, let your employee know they can come to you with concerns. “Having open communication and making your employees feel safe if they’re going through a difficult time is critical,” says Toledano. “Let them know they can come to you and find a solution together without fearing reprimand or negative judgment.”
3. Build a culture of openness around mental health
In this culture of hyper-productivity, says Toledano, building a supportive culture around mental health isn’t just about having an EAP or other mental health resources on hand. If you truly value the wellness of your employees, you’ll need to fully embrace what a mentally supportive culture looks like.
Part of that might involve managers modelling openness around sharing mental health challenges with their employees. “I think what’s really helpful is if a manager or a boss can share their own struggles. It models that you’re also human and you’re also struggling with certain things. That allows the employee to feel that they are not going to be negatively judged if they open up. It creates that safe space to share.”
Most importantly, it’s about striking a balance between business expectations and employee mental health. “The culture of a company has a huge impact on whether employees are happy and well,” she says. “Whether your work is a place where you feel like you’re allowed to be human and fallible and have weaker and less productive days. If that pressure to produce isn’t diminished – if you don’t address the internal pressures — it’s like exercising but still eating unhealthy foods.”
Learn more about how to set boundaries at work and home.