SHIFT: Have we forgotten the focus and energy that it takes to be out in the world?

From relearning how to be around people and the fear of getting COVID, to the loss of flexibility, heading back to the office is more than a transition — it's another test of our mental health.

Lisa Machado 7 minute read June 13, 2022
Contemporary art collage. Office worker, employee lying on low battery symbolizing tiredness

There are ways of coping with the exhaustion and overstimulation that comes with being back in the office. GETTY

I am no longer good at change, she texted, adding a sad-face emoji and a photo of a desk covered in paper and gum wrappers along with five (!) coffee cups.

This is the text that was waiting for me on my phone this morning. A longtime friend had her first week back in the office and, well, apparently it left a lot to be desired.

Besides rediscovering all that she hated about the office before COVID…

Turns out J still taps his cowboy boot incessantly on his desk, A is still taking other people’s lunches and H keeps stopping at my desk on the way from the bathroom. Still not sure he washes his hands.

… my very professional, smart, and optimistic friend also found herself caught up in a strange and unexpected exhausted crisis of capability.

I am eating out of a tub of chocolate ice cream in the stairwell. Is that bad?

She works for the government doing communications sorts of things — things that she says were done quite well virtually, but her boss believes that in-person work cultivates good morale, builds better relationships and inspires productivity. None of which my friend disagrees with, by the way. In fact, she was looking forward to getting back and seeing more than just the heads of the people on her team.

She even bought some new clothes for the occasion: “Finally, no yoga pants,” she said, proudly. Getting in on the excitement, I offered to lend her my lunch bag that has a smiling avocado on it and the words, “Avo good day!” for good luck. “Might as well go for the gusto,” I said. After all, we are crawling out from under a pandemic.

Apparently, all was going well for her until three hours into the first Monday back. Besides managing the floods of memories of how annoying her colleagues were — and clearly still are — she was tasked with leading a welcome back presentation to her boss’ eight-person team outlining how to integrate new employees into the existing office space.

I might have itched my butt while I was talking. Just the cheek though, she texted.

Career-limiting?? 

We decided that one butt-scratch is forgivable on the first day back to the office — there are worst things, after all. Plus it’s been more than two years off toiling away alone, hiding behind screens and email. It makes sense that one might experience a lapse in workplace etiquette. Right?

I, too, have begun integrating in-person meetings into my workdays. Recently, I spoke at a conference for cancer advocates and though it felt incredible to be with people again and line up for warm cookies at break-time, I had forgotten what it was like to be “on” for more than the usual 30-minute video call. There was no turning my camera off if I felt the urge to roll my eyes, or wanted to stuff salad into my mouth — this was real-life, and well, it felt weird and exhausting.

‘We’re a bit rusty with our social skills’

Just trying to guess who was OK with a handshake and who preferred a fist bump was a lot — and then there were the huggers. And though everyone seemed to be trying to adjust in their own way — one guy had a button on his shirt that said ‘I like distancing’ — there was one thing that almost everyone agreed on: we had forgotten the amount of mental focus and physical energy that it takes to be out in the real world with real people.

Clearly, as Naomi Torres-Mackie, a clinical psychologist, told Healthline, after two years of working from home, we’re “a bit rusty when it comes to our social skills.”

Add in the change in routine — routine provides psychological comfort, she says — and the fear of getting sick, and we’re left with an uncomfortable mix of “anxious cognitions, feelings of worry and unease, and low mood.”

Stress is another factor, especially if you are going back to a workplace with difficult co-workers, a toxic boss or a strict corporate culture — all things that were easier to cope with in the safety of a home office. Also things that can have a significant impact on mental health.

In fact, in a recent study by McKinsey & Co., one in three employees reported that returning to in-person work has had a negative effect on their mental health, causing Depression and anxiety. Their top concerns? Being exposed to COVID-19 and losing flexibility in terms of work schedules.

How can employers ease the stress of going back to the office?

Of course, there is a lot that employers can do to help ease the pressures that come with heading back to the office. Prioritizing mental health is a big one, but also, supporting employees as they transition into a new way of working — and yes, forgive the occasional butt-scratch, at least in the early days.

Other strategies, according to McKinsey, include recognizing that different employees have a different feelings about leaving their home office, ensuring COVID-19 safety with things like better air filtration, access to testing and arranging workspaces so as to allow social distancing and setting a trial period during which employees can try different hybrid ways of working as they transition to more time in the office.

As for employees, there are things we can do too to help take the edge off of the anxiety and stress of in-person work, such as going into the office for a few hours at first, and building up to a full day. Start a new routine by planning a schedule of the days and times you will spend in the office, making sure to fit time in to do things like make a lunch for the day and plan what you will wear.

“Staying organized and on top of things will help mitigate feelings of stress and overwhelm during this adjustment period. This will also help you prioritize your time and effort as you recalibrate,” Natalie Christine Dattilo, a clinical health psychologist told Healthline.

Boundary-setting is also important, and potentially something you might have to relearn after more than two years of trying to see through the blurred lines between life and work. This means managing those chatty workmates who like to hang out at your desk with techniques like putting a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on your desk, says etiquette expert Julie Blais Comeau.

It also means protecting your “sensory boundaries” — the constant hum of multiple conversations, sounds of footsteps as people walk past your desk, fingers tapping on keyboards, or the muted tone of music from a co-worker’s headphones are all things that can stimulate our senses to the point that we feel anxious, agitated and overwhelmed, making it difficult to focus.

Some ways to tackle this, Dr. Gail Saltz told Shape, is to limit the number of interactions you have in a day, for example don’t make plans with friends on a day that’s full of meetings. Also, show your workspace some love — minimize clutter, she suggests, listen to calming music, or use noise-cancelling headphones.

Stepping away is another option, says O’Reilly, who recommends taking a “sensory break” by going outside. She also suggests getting away from your screen, and taking time to stretch, or meditate. Or you can be like Minnie Katzen Mayer who posted a photo on LinkedIn of herself working on her laptop while sitting under her desk to soothe “overstimulation“.

If the experts are right, my friend can stop worrying that scratching her butt cheek in full view of the executive team and the subsequent ice cream binge in the stairwell is in any way an indication that she has lost her knack for professionalism and grit, or that she is somehow less committed to her job. In fact, her return-to-the-office experience makes perfect sense. After all, she’s making a complicated comeback from an incredibly difficult couple of years that not only required adapting lightning-fast to just about everything — including work — but also involved attending meetings with no pants on.

So what if she scratches her butt cheek once in awhile?

 

Lisa Machado is the executive producer of Healthing. She can be reached at lmachado@postmedia.com.

This story originally appeared in the Healthing Weekender. Subscribe here.

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