After more than a year of working from home, many people are finally preparing for a return to the office — and not all of them are happy about it.
Vanessa Cuddeford is a communication and career coach who helps professional women develop communication skills to more effectively advance their careers. Speaking to Salon by email, she described how many of her clients embraced the opportunity to "hide" behind a Zoom screen during the past year's COVID-19 lockdowns because they are naturally introverted — and now they are anxious about being compelled to resume in-person meetings.
"They feel it's easier to speak in virtual meetings, rather than have to compete with their louder colleagues in in-person meetings," Cuddeford said. "They like being able to keep the camera turned off and find it easier to signal their intention to speak with a virtual 'hands up' sign, rather than making their voices physically heard."
The anxiety is not limited to in-person meetings, either. Many live events were also delayed by the lockdown, and now one client is left dreading a keynote presentation she needs to deliver in three months.
"She told me that if she could do it virtually she'd be fine, but she's already losing sleep at the thought of standing up on stage," Cuddeford said.
There is little question that COVID-19 radically altered how Americans work. Employees are reportedly asserting their economic rights with increased fervor and basic concepts about the nature of work itself are being challenged. A generation that already felt economically disenfranchised by the 2008 crash felt the economy's foundations crumble beneath their feet for the second time in less than a dozen years. Unlike the Great Recession, however, this calamity didn't merely shed jobs and lead to a so-called K-shaped recovery — one that generally benefits the wealthy at the expense of everyone else — it also changed the fundamental nature of how we work when fortunate enough to be employed.
"Experts stress that the transition back to work is just that: an adjustment period best approached with an open mind," Dr. Holly Schiff, a licensed clinical psychologist, told Salon. "I have also noticed through my work that people's negative reactions are very strong and they are quite adamant about how they feel. This makes sense given that we have never experienced a situation like this before and people are unsure how to handle being told to come back to the office after being in lockdown through the pandemic. They also note feeling like they are losing some of their discretion and ability to choose how and where they work, which most employees are not happy about."
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And, of course, these developments are not happening within a vacuum — Schiff notes that the last year has been defined by the anxiety we've felt over every new change to our version of "normal": social distancing guidelines, habitually using video chat to communicate, wearing masks during in-person interactions that made it hard to read facial expressions and generally not exercising their socialization skills.
Making matters worse, we lived in a climate of fear due to anxiety about germs and contamination. The issue is not that people were wrong to do these things — all of them were necessitated by the pandemic. Nevertheless, they took a toll.
"We haven't completely lost our social skills, they just haven't been put into daily practice and not in the same ways they were prior to the pandemic," Schiff said.
All of this change over such a short time span can impact people's mental health — something Clara Monroe, a Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor (LPC-S), said that she believes people need to be especially mindful of as they, again, prepare to change their day-to-day routines.
"All of us could learn how to better take care of ourselves and listen to what our bodies, hearts, and minds are telling us," Monroe said. "Taking time to slow down, be aware of the now, and taking time for ourselves and our wellbeing is always a positive step. This could be in the form of exercising, enjoying a hobby, practicing yoga, doing meditation, or visiting a life coach or therapist."
This isn't to say that all the responsibility for employee well being should be placed in the hands of employees — businesses should also strive to foster an open dialogue with their workers to explore stressors they may be experiencing during this transitional phase and alleviate their anxiety as much as possible, says Dr. Doreen Marshall, Vice President of Mission Engagement at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
She also added that seeking out help from mental health professionals should be encouraged — and new forms of therapy and counseling that emerged during the pandemic can be expanded on to build a better network of support for people who are feeling overwhelmed by the rapid switch back to some semblance of pre-pandemic life.
But, most importantly, workers have stressed the importance of employers investing in well-defined (and more importantly, well communicated) health and safety protocols — especially in light of recent reports about the spread of a contagious Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus.
"Employers have a responsibility in three key ways: safety, sanitation, and sanity," said Dr. Tammy Lewis Wilborn, a board-certified licensed professional counselor-supervisor and owner of a New Orleans-based tele-mental health private practice. "First, it is critical that employers prioritize employees feeling safe to return to work. This may include communicating policies and new practices beforehand to ensure that employees know that their safety is of primary concern. They should also consider identifying a return-to-work plan based on employee concerns and employer needs which might include a hybrid model or staggered return."
Wilborn added that employers must enforce sanitation and hygiene rules as well as clearly communicate why basic cleanliness and COVID-19 guidelines should be followed.
"Employers should also anticipate hesitancy and anxiety about returning back to work and be prepared to address those concerns informally and formally," she said.
Anxiety, of course, makes perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective — to our prehistoric forebears, it often meant the difference between life and death. But modern life has largely removed the myriad threats to our immediate survival — and made lingering anxiety more of a hindrance than a help.
"Our ancestors who survived were the ones who overestimated the danger and therefore reacted and kept themselves safe," Cuddeford said. "If our ancestors heard a rustle in the bushes and assumed it was a sabre-toothed tiger … they survived. Even if nine times out of 10 it wasn't a sabre-toothed cat, but merely the wind rustling the bushes, it still paid off to overestimate the danger, because on the 10th occasion it might actually be a sabre-toothed tiger."
The problem, of course, is that today our dangers are more chronic.
"Work stress and financial concerns are stressors that keep us on high-alert for long periods, hence we have an epidemic of anxiety conditions in the modern world," she said.
Our successful return to pre-pandemic life will largely hinge on our ability to overcome that anxiety — and the ways we can use it to create more inclusive and safe workplaces for the future.