Handling the Stress of Returning to the Office

Businesses may be ready to bring employees back to the office but are employees ready? Experts weigh in on employees’ mental health

By Jenna Schifferle

Early in March, Texas announced it would reopen all businesses to full capacity and lift mask mandates. Shortly after, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster called state employees back to the office. Here in Western New York, COVID-19 cases continue to decline as more people get vaccinated. If this trend continues in the coming months, local businesses will revisit plans to bring employees back.

While some companies will remain remote, others will require employees to work a hybrid of remote and office work or return to the office completely.

Managing the anxiety and stress of retransitioning to a public setting (or any post-pandemic transition) can be a challenge.

Individual situations vary, but people throughout Western New York must now face these challenges head on.

Sara Schambach, a Springville native, has been in the office since the pandemic started and says employees have their own offices and can socially distance. Child care, however, has been an ongoing concern. On the other hand, Darcy Kennedy-Ellis of Buffalo started a new, in-person job just weeks ago.

“It’s been very weird to readjust to humans who aren’t my husband or my infant!” she said in a Facebook post.

The New New Normal

Erin M. Moss, a licensed mental health counselor at Erin M. Moss Mental Health Counseling private practice in Buffalo, said transitioning back to office life can drudge up new stressors and cause anxiety. People have adjusted to their new normal, and most now have the tools necessary to be successful. In this next phase of COVID-19, they will once again have to navigate challenges like childcare and being around other people.

Moss navigated the retransition to office life herself after months of working from home. With that retransition came new procedures and safety precautions like deep cleaning surfaces, installing hand sanitizer dispensers and UVC plug-in purifiers, and putting up plexiglass as a barrier to keep patients safe. But even new office protocols have been a point of stress for many people in their jobs.

“Seeing the new changes is a lot. It’s a reminder that something’s happened that has changed our normal,” Moss said.

Laura Ott, a counselor in Cheektowaga, points to several different fears that her patients experience. Some worry that their managers won’t be supportive of changes impacting their children. Others worry about job security and missed opportunities due to a lack of flexibility. Still others struggle with acclimating to their company in person or fear that they may contract COVID-19 while there.

“Many people are returning to work with different family structures and dynamics such as the addition of children, separations, divorces, deaths, and more. They have a different set of needs than they had a year ago, because the world looks different,” Ott said, “As we move through 2021 and continue to transition back to ‘normal,’ we need to remember it will be far from normal.”

What Employees Can Do

When it comes to managing the stress and anxiety from work transitions, there are steps employees can take to stay in control of their mental health.

Moss’s Advice

During these transitions, Moss suggested practicing self-care outside of work, connecting to a support system at work (in a safe manner), and having open, honest conversations. Keeping a stress ball or silly putty on hand and practicing deep breathing can also help.

Self-care can take the shape of a favorite activity or involve taking a moment for oneself, Moss said. Whatever self-care looks like to someone, it should go behind the simple act of doing something and allow a person to really connect to the moment.

Above all, communicating about what’s needed and necessary can make a difference. Moss emphasized that it’s vital to tell people you need space and make sure you’re comfortable. Though this can be difficult for those with anxiety, people should respect your request when it’s coming from a place of authenticity.

“I have to remind people that there is no rulebook for this. A lot of employers and people are learning as they go. They need you to say something so they can adjust,” Moss said. “We’re all carrying things right now, and it’s important that we all come together and understand one another.”

Ott’s Advice

According to Ott, maintaining healthy boundaries with family, friends, and colleagues is a critical component of creating a healthy environment and having meaningful relationships. People should also check in with themselves often and learn what will help them feel better connected to the people and things they enjoy.

Lastly, Ott said that people should acknowledge and embrace the fact that opposite feelings coexist.

“We can feel eager and anxious simultaneously. We can want a break from constantly being with members of our household and also feel sad that this period of togetherness is ending.

What Employers Can Do

Transitions impact people emotionally because they are often linked to stress, Ott says. People transitioning back to work need support from their employer as well as a welcoming, supportive space to share challenges and identify solutions.

“What we know about stress and trauma is that access to support is essential for promoting effective coping and resiliency,” she said. “Things such as flexible or staggered office hours, availability of human resources, having management open to feedback, and free emotional support services are a few things that will help employees better transition.”

Moss similarly advised that employers should promote employee assistance programs and remind people about available resources. Employers can also provide materials on stress management, speak to staff about mental health, or bring in a counselor to present on the subject.

Above all, both Moss and Ott encourage employers to talk to their employees.

“The best thing an employer can do is ask staff how they are doing and offer support if the answer isn’t ‘fine,’” Ott said.

Last Thoughts

Though we are getting better at talking about mental health, a stigma still exists.

“If you’re a person who’s struggling with the idea of going to a counselor, it’s important to know that everyone needs someone to talk to, especially now. It’s okay to get help,” Moss said.