The Big Return

Why people are anxious about returning to the office, and what to do about it

David Brancaccio and Rose Conlon Sep 16, 2021
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Not everyone feels emotionally ready to go back to the workplace, according to Amanda Fialk, a licensed clinical social worker. Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
The Big Return

Why people are anxious about returning to the office, and what to do about it

David Brancaccio and Rose Conlon Sep 16, 2021
Heard on:
Not everyone feels emotionally ready to go back to the workplace, according to Amanda Fialk, a licensed clinical social worker. Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
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As some companies call employees back into physical workplaces after going remote during the pandemic and others postpone their back-to-office plans, the question of when — or if — workers will be required to return to company property is a loaded issue. While some people are excited about the prospect, not everyone is looking forward to it.

A June survey by McKinsey found that one-third of workers who had already returned to the office reported that it negatively impacted their mental health, and half of those who were still remote anticipated negative mental health effects around their eventual return.

Mental health professionals are seeing these concerns play out in their offices.

“While there are certainly many people who are excited to get back to work and excited to have that face-to-face contact — because isolating at home and being in front of a computer screen all day while working has had a negative impact on their mental health — there are other people who aren’t so excited, and going back to the office is bringing up some anxiety for them,” said Amanda Fialk, a licensed clinical social worker and chief of clinical services at the Dorm, a mental health treatment center based in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Fialk spoke with Marketplace’s David Brancaccio about how returning to the office is affecting people and steps employers and workers can take to prioritize mental health in the workplace. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Amanda Fialk: While there are certainly many people who are excited to get back to work and excited to have that face-to-face contact — because isolating at home and being in front of a computer screen all day while working has had a negative impact on their mental health — there are other people who aren’t so excited, and going back to the office is bringing up some anxiety for them.

Acknowledging pandemic trauma

David Brancaccio: Yeah, I mean sometimes you have jerks for co-workers. Sometimes the commute can be hell. There’s just so much that happens between the safety of your home and getting to and from work that can give some people pause.

Fialk: Yeah, and not only that, but when you think about this pandemic, it was a traumatic experience. And it was different than, say, something like the World Trade Center or [Hurricane] Katrina, which were discrete events — they happened, and then the trauma was over, and people had an opportunity to come together to grieve. They were able to talk and hug each other and be around other people. With this pandemic, it’s still going on, and we don’t know when it’s going to end. So the trauma associated with it is a little bit more complex. And just because the government or the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] or Dr. [Anthony] Fauci or whomever says that it’s safe to go back to work, it doesn’t mean that people feel emotionally safe or emotionally ready.

Brancaccio: And some people, I’m probably one, have fallen out of the habit of interacting with the people that you used to hang out with.

Fialk: Absolutely. And social skills are like muscles: When you don’t use them, over time, they atrophy, and it can become difficult and overwhelming to try to use them again.

The psychological impact of uncertainty

Brancaccio: Another thing that’s wearing on people is that you don’t know when you have to plan to go in, in many industries. Is it soon? Is it not so soon? Is it kind of never, but maybe sometime you’ll open up an email and, boo, you got to come back in? It’s like waiting to find out if your parole has been granted.

Fialk: Correct. And I think that human beings do not like unpredictability. And with this pandemic, there’s been a lot of stops and starts: “We’re opening the office. No, just kidding, we’re actually not opening the office.” So every single time that you become mentally or emotionally prepared to go back, the rug gets pulled out from under you, and then you’re back at home again — which only adds to the trauma and to the anxiety associated with this entire pandemic.

How employers can prioritize mental health at work

Brancaccio: I assume you’d want more employers to offer coverage for mental health care. But what else could employers do as a practical matter to support workers trying to navigate through these very trying times still?

Fialk: In the ideal world, I wish that the workplace would treat mental health concerns or issues in the same way that we treat physical health concerns or issues. If somebody were to call their boss or their [human resources] department and say, “I need to take a sick day because I have the flu,” nobody would bat an eye. I don’t think that employees have the same level of comfort calling their HR departments or calling their bosses and saying, “I’m feeling anxious today” or “I’m going through a depression. I need to take the next two days as mental health days.” And it’s unfortunate that employees aren’t in a place where they feel comfortable doing that — because I don’t think companies have created a culture where people feel that they can do that. And that, to me, is the next step in true mental wellness in the workplace: creating cultures where people can talk about their mental health concerns and take time to take care of themselves.

Brancaccio: Maybe the economics of the labor market might help with what you’re asking for because we’re hearing about this worker shortage and one of the responses is some employers are raising what they’re willing to pay, but also signing bonuses. But it might be more flexibility on the ability to take a day or longer if things seem like they’re falling apart for you.

Fialk: Right. And then also there are creative things that can be done in the workplace in terms of benefits or in terms of opportunities for people to practice self-care in the workplace. Employers can ensure that everybody is able to take a lunch break every day. Maybe there are areas at work where people can go and have a quiet space to meditate or practice mindfulness. Maybe employers are including gym memberships in their benefits packages because we know that practicing yoga or going for a run is really good for mental health. So there’s lots of creative things that can be done when, and if, employers start paying attention to mental health in the workplace.

Tips for workers experiencing back-to-office anxiety

Brancaccio: What about for individuals who are especially anxious about whether or not they’re going back in? Do you have any suggestions for ways they can think about this?

Fialk: It’s tough because you don’t have control over when your boss is going to send that email telling you that you have to come back to the office. But you do have control over practicing good sleep hygiene; doing meditation; exercising; taking time for fun with friends; staying away from excessive scrolling on Facebook, Instagram or just normal news outlets — because one thing that I’ve seen a lot with this pandemic is that, out of anxiety, people are spending so much time online reading about the illness, and often that actually only adds to the anxiety. I think that it’s important to get information necessary to protect yourself, that there is such thing as too much information.

Brancaccio: There’s an irony here. There’s huge demand for mental health services, given everything we were living here, but sometimes finding someone taking new patients is an anxiety-provoking exercise in itself.

Fialk: Not only is it anxiety provoking, but there’s also been a shortage of mental health professionals because we are in a mental health crisis. So finding people, in the best of times, to help you with mental health issues is difficult, but it’s even more difficult now because practices are filled and organizations are filled and have waitlists. But I always say to people that you don’t have to wait until your anxiety reaches a 10 to ask for help. It is OK to ask for help when it’s at a 3 or a 4, before it goes through the roof. And it becomes much easier to treat and much less overwhelming the sooner that you reach out for treatment. You don’t have to hit this rock bottom to ask for help.

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