U.S. workers not so keen on heading back to the office

By Eileen Weber
July 9th, 2021
Marney White, Ph.D, MS, is a clinical psychologist and associate professor of social and behavioral sciences at the Yale School of Public Health.
Marney White, Ph.D, MS, is a clinical psychologist and associate professor of social and behavioral sciences at the Yale School of Public Health.

Slowly, a glimmer of what life was like before the pandemic is starting to emerge. Mask mandates are being lifted, there is more relaxed social distancing, and people are returning to the office. But not everyone is eager to resume their lengthy commute only to stare at the inside of a cubical again.

In a March 2021 report, the American Psychological Association noted the health concerns that many people have surrounding this return to “normal.”

While the survey showed things like nearly two thirds of Americans gained significant weight, had sleeping problems, added stress and mental health issues, and canceled health care services, it also addressed post-pandemic sentiment. Forty-nine percent of Americans are “hesitant about the future” saying they feel uncomfortable with in-person interaction. Additionally, 46 percent of adults claimed they are not thrilled with the idea of going back to pre-pandemic life.

For some, it can run a little deeper. Frontline healthcare workers have continued to feel anxious, depressed, and burned out. Restaurant and other “essential” workers feel unsafe in their workspaces. And, the government’s financial assistance turned out to be more sustainable than many employees’ salaries.

Then there’s the issue of childcare—some families can’t afford it, some facilities went out of business during the pandemic, and others still have children at home learning remotely.

“There’s a fear of, `Can I still do the job?’ `What if I make a mistake?’ `What if I’m rusty at my job?’” -- Jim Cartreine, Ph.D, Eclipse Psychology, LLC

Jim Cartreine, Ph.D, specializes in working with college and graduate students at his private practice Eclipse Psychology, LLC, outside Boston. He said some of his patients are reluctant to go back to work for other reasons.

“One person developed a panic disorder about going back at all,” he explained. “One was Asian American and concerned about the anti-Asian attacks. I have another patient who was concerned about getting COVID, although the vaccinations have helped that anxiety.”

He added that it’s helpful to find out the individual’s history with anxiety. Maybe they’ve been carrying anxiety—treated or untreated—for some time before the pandemic. And, like many factors during this time, what was already a problem before may have become exacerbated.

“Anxiety about change, fears of COVID, fears of returning to a workplace that had negative aspects that they were relieved to get away from,” said Cartreine. “Sometimes, the commute itself is stressful. There’s a fear of, `Can I still do the job?’ `What if I make a mistake?’ `What if I’m rusty at my job?’”

Cartreine pointed out when we fear something we naturally want to avoid it. He talked about “exposure therapy,” a lot like Nike’s marketing tag line—Just Do It. He said the best way to treat anxiety is to do the very thing that causes you anxiety.

Marney White, Ph.D, MS, is a clinical psychologist and associate professor of social and behavioral sciences at the Yale School of Public Health. She agreed with Cartreine that avoidance maintains rather than eliminates the anxiety.

“For some people, this anxiety may be due to a general mistrust of their fellow human beings who seem to be denying the seriousness of the pandemic.” -- Marney White, Ph.D, MS, associate professor of social and behavioral sciences, Yale School of Public Health

She explained that during the pandemic, enclosed spaces or being indoors with other people posed a danger in potentially contracting COVID-19. By working from home, we’re “safe,” which gave the clear message that the workplace is unsafe. She used this scenario to explain how the anxiety perpetuates.

“If, for example, someone is afraid of spiders, avoiding a basement where spiders are will ensure that one does not encounter a spider,” she said in a recent email exchange. “Over time, the basement itself becomes a feared situation, in that it is only through avoiding the basement, that one is able to feel safe from spiders. However, drawing this out to anxieties about returning to the office: the issue here is that the office is not necessarily fully safe at this point.”

But White offered another aspect to the reluctance to return to work—misinformation. There has been a generalized mistrust of the news in the media. She said it’s difficult to know who to listen to and whether or not to follow public health guidelines. More specifically, there’s no way to know who is vaccinated and who is not.

“For some people, this anxiety may be due to a general mistrust of their fellow human beings who seem to be denying the seriousness of the pandemic,” she said. “In effect, people may feel gaslighted when hearing messages from politicians and other public figures claiming that COVID-19 is not a serious problem, or false claims that ‘only vulnerable’ people need to be concerned. Conflicting messages such as this could create anxiety.”

But there may be ways for you to reduce or better control your anxiety about going back to work. Cartreine said some of the “levers” you may have to pull are not psychological, but physiological. Sleep, nutrition, and exercise are key.

“Exercise is huge for anxiety. Things like the Mediterranean diet are mentally healthy,” he said. “Another issue is using alcohol and drugs. It may calm you temporarily. But it’s a lot like pushing a volleyball under water. Later on, it spikes whenever you stop pushing.”

White went one step further. She suggested requiring certain accommodations from your employer. Personal safety policies like reducing the number of people in the office at any one time, minimizing the potential for close contact, creating separate workspaces rather than congregate seating, and allowing flexible schedules may help.

She also offered the option of mask mandates and required proof of vaccination.

Both Cartreine and White agreed getting vaccinated is a primary way to reduce anxiety. If you feel you are protected against the virus, you are certainly less likely to feel anxious or unsafe. As Cartreine explained, your anxiety may not fully go away, but you may be better able to accept your situation.

White noted, ““The critically important thing is that for people who have not yet been fully vaccinated, the threat is still very real.”

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