There are very few experiences in the world that everyone shares. What makes these situations so powerful is a shared experience that everyone can relate to. Although our individual experiences in these situations are unique, we share a powerful commonality centered around a key event.
These experiences are powerful for us both as individuals and as a community. They can reshape the way we look at the world and our place in it. They can make us rethink the way we get work done or the way we live our lives. And they can create quite a bit of uncertainty and even anxiety around what the future will look like.
As we have collectively adapted to the disruptive effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have all had to evolve our behaviors in life and at work to adapt and thrive. For those fortunate enough to have not lost their jobs, or worse, they undoubtedly had to make significant changes to the way they accomplished their work in order to stay productive and competitive in this new operating environment. It was tough. It took a lot to figure out how to be successful in this new work scenario. It made us learn to flex new muscles. But, in the end, we did it. And now this “new” way of working has even, dare I say, become comfortable.
So, now what?
As COVID vaccines become increasingly available, the work world is beginning to think about the future. Most of that thinking revolves around questions rather than definitive answers at this point. What will work look like in the coming months? When might I need to go back to an office? What expectations will my employer have of me? What flexibility might exist?
These are all fair questions to be asking and employees and employers alike are grappling with the need to create clear expectations about what work will look like as we begin to put the pandemic behind us. One of the key obstacles is the fact that no one really knows the answers to these questions right now. Even the most intentional employers are trying to create some level of clarity for the people even while many of the variables are still quite dynamic. This lack of clear answers weighs on people. Some more than others.
If you are feeling uneasy or anxious about what the future holds, know that you’re not alone. Here are a few things to consider to help you navigate this tumultuous time:
- Be graceful with yourself and others. This is a new and unique situation that everyone is going through in some form or fashion together. Despite our best efforts, mistakes will be made. Give yourself space to be patient and understanding with yourself and others as we all work to find our way to “the new”.
- Be prepared. Understanding yourself, your needs, and your “signals” will help you to be attuned to how you are reacting to the changes that you are going through. Get ahead of things to the extent possible. The situation will, no doubt, continue to evolve but you can find some comfort in being in control of what you can influence.
- Talk to your coworkers and employer. You’re not going through this by yourself and the questions you have are shared by others. Find ways to engage others in dialogue about the realities of the situation, what is known, what is not, and the path forward. If you’re comfortable in being vulnerable, find ways to productively share your emotions and fears associated with the future. Let people know what you need so they can help.
- When the anxiety of the unknown begins to swell, sometimes the best first step is simply to stop for a beat and breathe. There are plenty of fantastic resources out there to help guide you in learning how to take a pause, breathe, and recenter yourself.
- Get help. If you are finding that the anxiety associated with these changes is becoming too much to manage you need to be honest with yourself and acknowledge that it may be time to reach out to someone who can assist.
Tips for people leaders.
While the factors discussed above are helpful considerations regardless of your role, if you are a people leader there are some additional considerations that you are likely mulling over to help your team make a successful transition to what’s next.
- Be patient. Your people are going to be going through a lot at home and at work whether they show it or not. People’s behavior may change or may seem “off” while they process changes and new realities. Be patient with yourself and your team. Vanessa Matsis-McCready, Associate General Counsel and Director of Human Resources for Engage PEO suggests, “For many, burnout and return to office anxiety is a result of the lack of family support during the pandemic. For example, many employers have had to help children with zoom lessons or assist elderly parents who usually do not need hands-on assistance. With this in mind, employers should be flexible in when and how work gets done – even when back in-office – and encourage team members to take advantage of PTO. In certain instances, as a cost-saving measure, companies might consider reducing work weeks which may help employees find balance.”
- Create space for processing and sense-making. Find ways to create a safe space for people to process their emotions and feelings with each other. Creating a level of psychological safety can take time and showing that you are willing to share your challenges is a great way to show that it’s safe to be honest about the impact of these changes on us as people.
- Be honest about what you know and what you don’t. As the situation progresses, more facts and data will become available but there will likely be a plethora of changes and variables influencing life for you and your team for the foreseeable future. Be honest with your team about what is known and what isn’t. Ask them for their input and questions. The dialogue will help everyone process the situation and feel a sense of control in a sea of uncertainty.
- Anxious team members are going to fill any silence with noise and, oftentimes, the stories they tell themselves may not be grounded in fact and reality. Don’t let open space fill with anxiety. Make extra time and effort to communicate early and often. It may feel like you’re overdoing it but you’re not. People want to be a part of the process and feel in the know so look for ways to actively include them in figuring out a path that works for the business and the diverse people on the team.
- Don’t ignore warning signs of distress. Some of your team (or you) may be having significant challenges navigating the return to work and they may be sending subtle signals that they are in distress. Your role as leader will require that you keep your antennae tuned in to yourself and your team. Keeping a sharp eye out during your interactions with others for signals (verbal and non-verbal) that they may be experiencing levels of anxiety or difficulty that may be unhealthy can be extremely beneficial. Your attention to your team may be the difference between healthy navigation of stress and a potentially serious situation. Matsis-McCready adds, “We recommend offering employee assistance programs and being proactive about communicating these offerings to team members. Employers should build in extra time for team events and activities that may assist with the transition back into the office environment.”
People handle stress and anxiety in very different ways. As the world begins to think about how and when people will return to a physical workplace, the lack of definitive detail will, no doubt, affect many people in different and, sometimes, unhealthy ways. Making efforts to be proactive can help to preempt and minimize some of those negative effects.
This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.
For more on this topic listen to the Return to Work Anxiety episode of the gothamCulture podcast.
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