More than one year after the emergence of COVID-19 and the subsequent, work-from-home mandates, many employees are heading back to the office. After adjusting to that new normal created by the pandemic and experiencing the benefits that came with it, the reemergence of rush hour traffic, office politics, and a loss of freedom is leading to dread and angst among some workers.
“Most of the clients I’m currently working with are anxious about returning to work because of potential exposure to COVID, they’re worried about losing flexibility and control over their workday and quality of life,” said David Hansen, Licensed Professional Counselor and Certified Career Counselor in Fairfax. “My clients are afraid of losing that, and right now there's a lot of anxiety because it's unclear to them what the expectations will be when they’re back in the office.”
Just as employees and employers had to make significant modifications abruptly, urgently and without precedent, some of the same kinds of adjustments will need to be made during the transition back to working in person. “Last March, it took people a while to adjust and figure out how to make working from home function properly, but over time, and even though it was hard, many working people and their families got into a steady groove, and even found that they could build in more quality time to take care of themselves and their families," said Hansen.
Losing those benefits has led to a reevaluation of goals and values.
“The success and power-driven environment that we live in was shaken by the pandemic. Many have seen that they can lead fulfilling lives with less,” said Arlington psychologist Kerry Anderson, Ph.D. who transitioned her practice to video conferencing during the pandemic. “They may find that what they have is good enough and adding more may tip the scales back to stress and excess. Now more than before it’s important to reassess your current values as your life stands today. What do you want the next three to five years to look like? What have you learned over the course of this year that you would like to maintain? What are you ready to let go of that has not served you well?
Retuning without giving up all of the autonomy could be a solution, says Hansen. “I think that employees who want to retain some of their freedom and flexibility in their schedule can have open and honest conversations with their supervisor about maintaining at least one or more work-from-home days.”
While some employees might be able to negotiate an arrangement that allows them to maintain at least part of the change in workstyle that resulted from the pandemic, others may not have that luxury.
“Workers should lower their self- expectations accordingly,” said psychologist Steven Thiessen, Ph.D. whose office is in Rockville. “They should expect to feel some level of discomfort, and they should not expect to handle it perfectly. They should expect that they will need a period of adjustment.”
Creating a plan can help reduce stress and anxiety, particularly for those who don’t have the power to ask for flexibility. “I think one of the most important things employees can do right now as they're thinking about going back to work is identify, very specifically, what positive changes they've made since COVID that they want to hold onto,” said Anderson. “Finding creative ways to maintain activities like exercising or spending time with family can give you something to look forward to and can reduce some of the anxiety over returning to work.”