Returning to the Office: Navigating the Anxiety

By Stacey Whiteley

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Many of us have been working from home since mid-March, when stay at home orders were issued and the New York on PAUSE plan was put into effect by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Those who were able to work from home adjusted to their new situation in varying degrees of comfort and productivity. Working from home came with many challenges and stresses that were addressed in dozens of articles, webinars, podcasts, and human resource emails. We were advised to keep a routine, exercise, stay in contact with colleagues and friends, take frequent breaks, and be easy on ourselves because this was a difficult time for everyone.

Many of us survived working from home by following those guidelines and made a somewhat successful, if bumpy, adjustment to the new normal.  Now we are being faced with a new challenge: returning to the office.

There are many people who cannot wait to get back to their workplaces. They long for the company of their office colleagues and the sense of solidarity and belonging that working in an office brings. They are craving the structure and environment of the office setting. Yet there are just as many who have found renewed purpose and heightened productivity working from home.

No matter which group you fall into, returning to the office after so long is bound to create anxiety and uncertainty for any number of reasons. Learning how to navigate these feelings is going to be important to a successful transition back to the office, just as adjusting to the stress and challenges of working at home was important to making that transition.

First, there is only so much you can control, and that begins with your thoughts and behaviors. Examine your thoughts around your anxiety and what is causing the most stress for you. Is it fear about being exposed to the virus? Is it based on not wanting to disrupt the successful flow of your current situation? Are there childcare or homeschooling issues that will come into play by having to leave home to go to work? There are probably other factors that are specific to your situation, so think about what they are and identify them. Naming the concerns will help in finding solutions.

Probably the most concerning and most named issue about returning to the office is the chance of being exposed to the coronavirus and the many implications that accompany it. Before returning, your employer should provide you with steps it has taken to make the workplace safe and sanitary for its employees. Ask questions if you are unsure or unclear regarding steps your employer has taken.

You can use CDC and OSHA guidelines for reference. If you return to the office and your employer is not following recommended best practices, express your concerns to your supervisor and human resources department. It is the responsibility of the employer to ensure the workplace is safe for staff and the public.

You can also be sure to manage your own healthy habits by washing your hands frequently, using hand sanitizer as needed, not touching your face, wearing a mask and making sure you stay socially distant from others. Be sure to not share workplace items like staplers, tape dispensers, pens, and phones. Wash your hands after touching elevator buttons, copy machines, and other shared touch points. Stay away from common areas as much as possible and don’t schedule face-to-face meetings, continue using virtual tools to conduct meetings even if the person you need to meet with is in the office. And if you are feeling even slightly sick, stay home.

If you are anxious because you have worked out a successful routine at home and are concerned that going into the office will disrupt your productivity, ask if there is a way to continue to remote work and offer an explanation as to why it is a better solution for you and for the organization. If a full-time remote work schedule is not possible, see if there is a blended arrangement that can be arrived at, such as working from home three days a week and coming into the office two days. As most employers are trying to keep the office density low, especially during the initial phases of the opening, your employer may be more amenable to alternative arrangements.

If there is no option to continue to work from home, determine what it was about working from home that suited you and try to incorporate that into your office work. You may have developed better habits at home such as limiting distractions, focusing on one project at a time, taking frequent breaks to move and stretch, or playing soothing background music to help your concentration. Take these better habits with you to the office and use them there.

It may mean keeping your office door closed more often and scheduling your time differently, but if it works for you, keep doing it. You could bring a few personal items from your home workspace into the office to help you ease into the transition. If you are still having difficulties, talk to your supervisor about a modified work schedule to ease you back into working in the office. Also explore your organization’s EAP services and take advantage of them. Seeking additional help during this time will be valuable to your overall well-being.

If you are facing homeschooling or childcare issues because of a return to the office, it is best to talk to your supervisor and human resources department to determine what options are available to you until childcare services are available. Expanded family and medical leave protections under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) that are in place until December 2020 may provide you with options if you have to remain home to care for your children. You can find more information here. 

There are no perfect solutions or foolproof tips to address the myriad of issues we all are facing, but if you are able to narrow your focus to what you can control, there are things you can do that will help give you a sense of certainty about your circumstances. If your anxiety is overwhelming and disrupting your ability to function, ask for help.

The Lawyer Assistance Helpline at NYSBA (800-255-0569) can provide you with confidential referrals and resources, including peer support. Or call your primary care physician to discuss your situation; your doctor will be able to suggest local providers that can help. You can also access the New York State Department of Health’s emotional support helpline (844-863-9314). It is free and confidential.

Remember that you are not alone. Ask for help when you need it and utilize the supports that are available. These are tough times, but we will get through them together.

Stacey Whiteley is the director of NYSBA’s Lawyer Assistance Program.

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