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If Going Back to the Office is Stressing You Out, You’re Not Alone

by Carrie Borzillo - April 25 , 2022

Photo Credit: by Tranmautritam,
Photo Credit: by Tranmautritam,

Now that most people are vaccinated (and boosted!), mask mandates are in the rear view mirror, and most of us are back to hugging instead of fist-bumping, employers are rolling out plans for workers to return to the office. But the idea of trading in our sweatpants for work clothes to return to the Monday to Friday, 9-5 grind is causing many people newfound stress. 82 percent of respondents in a recent Wall Street Journal survey said that they felt apprehensive about going back to the office, and one third of people who recently returned to their desks have reported a negative impact on their mental health, according to a McKinsey study.

According to the American Institute of Stress, more than 70 percent of Americans experience stress to a level that affects both their physical and mental health. And the transition from working at home to entering the office again is making it worse. According to research from Microsoft earlier this year, approximately 50 percent of leaders said they want their employees to return to the offices full-time for the typical five-day work weeks. This is in stark contrast to what workers said they want in the same study, which showed 53 percent hoping for a full-time remote job or a hybrid situation where you work half in the office and half at home.

Just the idea of returning to their offices or cubicles is taking a toll on workers’ mental health. “Returning back to the office may feel like culture shock,” Debra Kaplan, a therapist in Tucson, Arizona, recently told CNBC. With April being Stress Awareness Month, we’ve compiled the best advice from medical, mental health, and human resource experts to help both employers and employees deal with back-to-work stress.

Tips for Employers

Validate Concerns: Dr. Nikole Benders-Hadi, medical director of behavioral health at Doctor on Demand, says that the first step of a successful return-to-work strategy is simply to acknowledge your employees' uncertainty and anxiousness. “It’s important to validate employees’ feelings and encourage an open line of communication to discuss concerns and best practices from the beginning.

Focus on Communication: Dr. Benders-Hadi suggests that managers should plan to regularly connect with their team members one-on-one to discuss any individual uncertainty about returning to work. “This can help create a safe space for everyone to voice any concerns they may have,” she says.

Lead with Compassion: Some anxieties about returning to work may not feel rational. “Extend compassion to this young part of you. Maybe, for example, you discover a too-irrational-for-any-adult fear of wearing shoes all day. But, if you meet that fear with compassion rather than irritation, perhaps all it wants is to have permission to take your shoes off at the office,” Washington, D.C.-based social worker Keith Miller told CNBC.

Encourage Self-Care: Self-care is an important aspect of managing the stress of returning to work. Don’t expect your employees to know when to take time for themselves. Dr. Benders-Handi suggests that the bosses need to encourage their staff to practice self-care. “It’s easy for people to feel bogged down in the middle of the workday and forget to leave their desk for some fresh air. Remind employees to take time for themselves, even if it’s just for five minutes per day. Activities like exercise, meditation, or going for a walk around the block will reduce stress levels significantly,” she says.

Be Flexible: Having all your employees back in the office for a traditional 5-day, 40-hour workweek might not be the ideal situation for all. Experts say the more flexible companies by perhaps offering a hybrid option (i.e., three days at home, two days in the office) can be, the happier their employees will feel. BetterUp suggests trying staggered schedules and test runs of returning to the office.

Tips for Employees

Get Informed: A contributing factor to the return-to-the-workplace stress is the fear of the sixth wave of COVID-19 with the new BA.2 subvariant. The more informed you are about how your employee will keep you and your workplace safe, the less stress you may have over it. Ask your manager what their COVID safety protocols will be, how far away will your desk be from others, are masks required, will there be testing available, and, really, any other concern you have.

Plan Ahead: Being as prepared as possible for your new schedule and environment can help ease the stress as well. Experts suggest driving your work route to see if the commute time has changed, revisiting your work wardrobe or if you can afford it, treating yourself to some new work clothes, and meal prepping for lunches to bring to the office.

Remember HALT: This is an oldie, but a goodie. Halt stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. “When stress takes hold, stop, and ask yourself if you are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. When stress overtakes you and pulls you out of your job, this alert signal can bring you back into balance. If one or a combination of the four states is present, slow down, take a few breaths, and chill. If you’re hungry, take the time to eat. When you’re angry, address it healthily. If you’re lonely, reach out to someone you trust. And if you’re tired, rest,” writes Bryan Robinson, Ph.D., in Forbes.

Practice Self-Care: There are many ways to practice self-care at the office, without it taking up too much time or even being noticed by co-workers. You can go to the restroom and practice a five-minute meditation, go for a walk, enjoy a soothing cup of herbal tea by yourself, grab an empty office and do a few yoga stretches, or listen to relaxing music while you work. Even just focusing on your breath can help. “Controlling breathing and breathwork exercises can offer an immediate lessening of anxiety and a sense of empowerment,” says Castel Santana, MD, in Entrepreneur magazine.

Declutter, Organize, & Beautify: Sometimes the key to a stress-free day at work is as simple as having an enjoyable workspace. You don’t need a corner office with a view for this. You can achieve little bits of joy right there in your cubicle, and it usually starts with decluttering and organizing your workstation. Studies show that clutter and disorganization can lead to increased stress and anxiety, and decreased productivity.


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