Podcast: Return to Work Anxiety? You’re Not Alone

gothamCulture podcast

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?

Chris Cancialosi discusses these questions and tips for navigating the associated anxiety with guests Tracy Nathanson, LCSW, a licensed psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of anxiety, depression, relationship issues, life transitions, low self-esteem, career challenges, and stress management, Dr. Ernesto Lira de la Rosa, a Licensed Clinical Psychologist who works at Columbia University’s counseling center and maintains a private practice in NYC, and Dr. Michael J. Provitera, an executive leadership trainer and Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at Barry University in Florida.

Released: April 2, 2021

Return to Work Anxiety? You’re Not Alone – gothamCulture Podcast Transcript

Chris Cancialosi:

Welcome to season 2 of the gothamCulture podcast. This season, we’ll be exploring a variety of interesting topics. But there’s one topic that seems to be top of mind for many folks nowadays, and that is the return to work. As COVID vaccines are making their way into arms, and as employers attempt to figure out what work looks like in the months to come, many people are feeling anxious about what that means for them. Now that they’ve completely adapted their lives for remote work, what if I can’t go back to the office full time? What if I don’t want to? Will my career growth be stymied as my colleagues who do go back to the office secure all the promotional opportunities? These are all legitimate questions, and many employers simply don’t have the answers at the moment. So now what?

Today I’m joined by three very special guests who are going to share their perspective on this important topic. Tracy Nathanson is a licensed psychotherapist specializing in depression, anxiety, relationship issues and stress management. She provides fresh ways to engage and talk therapy by taking your clients out of the office and getting them into fresh air, providing psychotherapy with the known health benefits and wellness benefits of being in the great outdoors, and Tracy is the founder of Pace of Mind Therapy.

Also, joining us today is Dr. Ernesto Lira de la Rosa, he is a licensed clinical psychologist from New York City who works at Columbia University’s Counseling Center and maintains a private practice in the city as well. He also serves as a consultant to businesses and organizations looking to strengthen diversity initiatives and working to improve mental health and well being of their employees. Finally, Dr. Michael Provitera, he’s an executive leadership trainer. He is also president of Motivational Leadership Training, where his focus is on improving organizational effectiveness and enhancing individual success.

During his career, he’s worked with over 1000 executives, and his executive leadership certification runs 18 hours and covers six factors of leadership. Thank you all for joining us. Tracy, why don’t we start with you? Tell me from your perspective, I mean, what is at the root of a lot of the anxiety that’s floating around for people in terms of what return to work might look like?

Tracy Nathanson, LCSW:

Well, first of all, I think it’s helpful to go and look at what the past year has been like for everyone. Everyone has had different experiences around COVID and quarantining. As we know, maybe 30 to 40% of adults in our country have experienced stress, anxiety, depression. So we’re starting with that baseline. People, in addition, this past year have had to adjust their schedules, their routines, there’s been a lot of unknowns, and they’re kind of been getting used to that and trying to have as much control of the routines and schedules as possible.

Now we’re throwing into this a return to work and a new transition, what is that going to look like for them? I’m hearing a lot of people feeling anxious about vaccine, no vaccine, what is the workplace going to require? Am I going to have agency and power to decide? Or is that going to be decided for me? So that alone is creating a lot of stress right now for people, what is that going to look like?

Chris Cancialosi:

Absolutely. Thanks, Tracy. Ernesto, from your perspective, what do you have to add to that? Because I imagine that everyone’s unique, I mean, there’s a lot of different situations and people are grappling with this in different ways.

Dr. Ernesto Lira de la Rosa:

Yeah, I think as Tracy was saying, there is the sense of a collective trauma we all have experienced as a result of this pandemic, and we’re still experiencing, and things may be getting back to normal. But there is a lot of this anxiety and fear of what this normal is going to look like or new normal. Again, anxiety is just something that is an emotion that we all experience, and it’s a normal response to something that is a trauma. So, a lot of the things that I’m also seeing with clients or talking to people is about what will this look like in terms of just workplace setting, in terms of physical safety? If people still have to social distance, they have to wear masks. Is the vaccine going to be required or not?

I think a lot of these fears and anxieties can really have an impact on our physical health as well, and a lot of people may be coming back to work physically but may not feel grounded or centered. Because they may be worried about what is going to happen in the workplace, what kind of policies are going to be put in place, and if it’s going to be a uniform or universal policy. So there is a lot of fear and anxiety still, but also particularly for those people that maybe did contract COVID-19, and we still don’t know a lot of the effects of what this can have on people’s physical well-being and also emotional well-being.

So, what is that going to look like for people that maybe have contracted the virus and are experiencing some residual effects? If someone does get COVID-19 while they’re back at work, what does that mean for the rest of the people that are in place with their coworkers? So there is a lot of this anxiety that is normal. However, it does look differently for everyone and can have physical effects, physiological effects, and also impacts our mental health well-being.

Chris Cancialosi:

Absolutely. Yeah, thank you for your perspective on that. Mike, you take this from a little bit of a different angle professionally as somebody who works with leaders and executives, what are your thoughts on that?

Dr. Michael J. Provitera:

That’s an excellent question. We’re looking at people that are apprehensive about going back to work, while they were always worried about how they’re going to even keep their jobs. That was the first … the first objective was, “Can I keep my job?” So they all rushed to the computer and learned how to use Zoom and became on camera shy like this, and then what happened was, everybody started to realize that they weren’t going to lose that job, and this remote setting’s not bad. Then we invented the hallway highway. So within 15 minutes, you could be showered and sitting in front of a screen like this.

Then people started to say this isn’t so bad, people are still worried about their job stuff. Many corporations and organizations are not making any drastic moves right now, they’re putting their arms around people, telling them that they love them, and that they’re not talking about letting go people even though before the pre pandemic, there was people on the chopping block, but it’s kind of reverse now. So, some people are actually having work that they’re going to continue staying home. They just say, “Your job is a remote type job.” So when people get back to the office, how are they going to feel? And that’s where the anxiety comes from, which is what we’re talking about now, people are saying, “Am I going to be able to go back to Manhattan? Is there going to be internet?”

Then when I say … for people say like on college campuses, you have to make this a unique approach where people want to go back, they feel they’re going to have beach volleyball, they’re going to be able to rub elbows with others. That’s the thing, because this thing that we’re doing right now, this electronic communication has been enhanced, because people were isolated. So we feel more intended to want to be online right now and talk. So we want to rub elbows, but we’re rubbing elbows electronically. We like it, it works, but we really want to be in front of somebody again, and in the near future we will be.

Chris Cancialosi:

Absolutely. What I’m hearing from you all is that there are so many compounding stressors, and that it’s a chronic situation. Right? It’s not a stressor that happened in one point in time, it’s gone for a year. Ernesto, you brought this up, which I think is really interesting. It’s a collective trauma. Everyone has a frame of reference about this topic, and there’s very few things in life where everyone has a frame of reference, or a similar experience, although each person’s experience is unique. We’ve all gone through this in some form or fashion.

So, knowing that there are people in various phases of trying to move through this process in trauma, and in terms of their work life, which inevitably impacts their home life, what should people be thinking about or doing in order to help manage that anxiety? Mike, why don’t we start with you on this one?

Dr. Michael J. Provitera:

Thank you. Yes, that’s really a great question, because our whole mindset changed. In other words, for me to drive 40 minutes to the beach, all of a sudden now, do I really want to go? Do I want to spend the gas? Do I want to pay the tolls? I go out, I come back, we become accustomed to our lifestyle. The key is, a lot of us couldn’t go to gyms. I have an executive that built a gym in his garage, and I helped him. I work out at home. I can’t go to the gym, I have to make an appointment. So we have to get up, we have to walk around. It’s the intention that drives us.

So you have to say, “I intend to exercise today.” Not I’m going to exercise because you’ll find every ice cream in the refrigerator and every cookie in the cupboard. So you just say, “I intend to work out today.” And you just do it, just get up and go. It’s like the Asian mentality, is that, we intend to do something? We do it. So people are trying to break out of this new normal, which you can’t really say that anymore because it’s almost over. I’m writing about post pandemic recovery. We’re almost there. If you look at, like say a milestone, look at the cruise lines. If the cruise line jumps in June, we’re pretty much almost back to normal. If it doesn’t, then we’re still back into the remote thinking of when is it [inaudible 00:10:14] So, Disney opened. Now, is Disney going to open the cruise line?

So, these things that we’re thinking about, people taking off masks, masks not being mandatory. All of these things are psychologically making us change. So that physical ability that everyone’s talking about here, and being able to exercise and exercise our mind, think about mindfulness, meditate, we can’t stop doing what we always did just because of a pandemic, we have to reinvent ourselves and find new ways, novel ways of approaching life. I don’t want to promote myself, but I’ll just say, “I wrote a book with my daughters because it was about the pandemic, because they were feeling so much stress. That book has help them deal with their own stress.” Thanks for giving me the opportunity to go first on that one. That’s a tough one.

Chris Cancialosi:

Yeah, I mean, these are really complex issues, and everyone’s got their own unique reality and experience here. I know that the question I’m asking is very broad. Ernesto, from your perspective, what should people be thinking about, and how might they help manage this anxiety that they might be feeling?

Dr. Ernesto Lira de la Rosa:

Yeah, I think a really wonderful question and important topic to consider. One of the pieces that I tend to think about when talking to people that are having these anxieties and worries is, increasing the awareness around just what anxiety is, and how it can manifest differently for everyone, knowing more about how it comes up for you, and also finding some practical skills to be able to manage the anxiety, whether it be mindfulness skills, like Mike had mentioned, but also rebuilding these new cognitive connections to work, having time to reflect on what has changed in the last year, getting organized, creating to do lists when you’re out work, to be able to help you stay organized as on track, setting up priorities, setting up different weekly goals.

But I think there needs to be a sense of reflecting on what has happened and what has changed, and also just looking at how we can come back and ease our way into the workforce, into the workplace, and also keeping it in mind, being mindful of our anxiety and how it’s manifesting within each of us so that we can find things that can help us reduce that anxiety or the intensity of it.

Chris Cancialosi:

Absolutely. Tracy, I want to get your input on this, but something you said, Ernesto struck me, question for all of you to consider is, is it appropriate for people to position this reality as “back to normal,” or is it healthier, perhaps for us to acknowledge that what was in the past will no longer be necessarily and to begin to framing our mental process around the possibility of the new? So Tracy, I know I’m hitting you with two questions here, but I’d love your perspective on that.

Tracy Nathanson, LCSW:

Well, thank you, I think that’s a really good active reframe. Return to a new normal, this is going to be different, just like working during the pandemic was different. This is going to be a transition, it’s not going to happen overnight. Each workplace is going to be very different, some may be hybrid, some may be remote, some may require you to go in full time. So each one is going to be very different. I think healthy communication in the workplace is going to be incredibly and being transparent, and normalizing this level of anxiety and stress that everyone may be feeling. So that it’s okay if you’re not feeling well, talk to your boss, talk to your supervisor, to really be transparent and know that it is okay and that everyone’s going to be experiencing that at a different level.

Because I think that’s going to look different than before, and that type of communication of what’s going to work in the workplace. So I think that is going to be incredibly important. And as Ernesto said also, there are going to be people that have had COVID, we’re seeing some research now that may be one in every three people may have long lasting neurological or psychological effects that may be invisible, we may not see. So they may be going back to work, and then those who haven’t had COVID may have had a family loss, so they may be mourning or grieving. They may have experienced job uncertainty, they may have been isolated, feeling really lonely.

So there are going to be many kind of stresses and experiences that they have had that may be invisible, so to speak, that they are going to be bringing into the workplace, and we really do want to normalize that experience for them and really create an opportunity in this new workplace, I mean, environment for people to be able to talk about it, share these concerns with each other, with their supervisors, and feel okay with that.

Chris Cancialosi:

Yeah, thank you for that perspective. What’s striking me as I’m listening to the three of you is, there are things that people can do in terms of reframing, in terms of actual tactics that they can use to help kind of, in my words, not yours, take some control of the situation. I’m curious, from your perspective, at what point should someone say, “Jeez, I’m really not dealing with this in a healthy way, I really need to go out and get some external support.” What are the warning signs that someone should really be tuned to? Ernesto, why don’t we ask you to kick this one off?

Dr. Ernesto Lira de la Rosa:

Yeah. Some of the warning signs could be just looking at our sleep and appetite. Those are usually some of the places that we begin to see some changes in our well being when we’re under a lot of stress or anxiety or not feeling well. Additionally, there’s also the sense of looking at how you’re feeling in terms of, are you feeling happy? Are you feeling anxious? Are you doing things you enjoy doing? Are you losing interest and motivation? When you begin to notice maybe a decline in some of these things that did bring you happiness, pleasure, or excitement, and they’re not there anymore, and you’re spending a lot more time just worrying, thinking about things that have happened, I think those could be considered warning signs that maybe it could be helpful to talk with a professional or seek outside support.

That could also come in the way of just making sure you’re talking to people in your life, friends and family. Social support is really important. I think perceived social support is particularly important, that we may receive support, but if we don’t perceive it as helpful, then it’s not really support. So I think in some ways, making sure that we’re reaching out to people, when we’re noticing that we’re just not feeling ourselves. Again, that could be more of these day to day things like sleep and appetite. Just kind of, if our minds are preoccupied, and not being able to stay in the present moment, or just a reduction in our happiness, in our mood, can be some warning signs.

Chris Cancialosi:

Absolutely. Thank you for that, Ernesto. Mike, again, from your perspective, you come at this from a little bit of a different lens, working with executives, what are your thoughts on that?

Dr. Michael J. Provitera:

Well, there’s one way to think about this from my perspective, and that is, following what Tracy and Ernesto are mentioning, it’s like an emotional intelligence. So, people have to be self aware, and then there’s the psychological component, what’s their attitude? What’s their moods like? Are they staying up late? Are they sleeping less, because of this pandemic, watching movie? Whatever it is, entertainment, what are their beliefs and underlying beliefs of the recovery. You had mentioned about the new normal, there really is no new normal, it’s the future, it’s whatever happens.

Organizations maybe little bouncing balls and couches, and people may only go to the office in teams, and they may stay home, and they’re taking desks out of offices now, they’re changing real estate. Then there’s that self-regulation component. We talked about the psychological and then the physical components of the exercise, people are becoming more sedentary, or some people are getting into a regimen of exercise. Those things are very important. I do certain things every day, it’s like a COVID habit. But if I was going to challenge myself, they are not much. Running around the block is nothing, but my brother in law could run 12 miles in one time. Right? So everyone’s going to look at the world differently.

Then there’s that regulation, looking at how are you regulating yourself, are you exercising? Are you eating well? Then we have empathy, right? So once we get through emotional times, once we control our own empathy, then we could look at how we’re controlling our own emotional intelligence. Then that social skills comes into play. Being in this kind of environment, we’re at level playing fields. I have all the respect in the world for you, Chris, Tracy, and Ernesto, but think about if we’re in a meeting of 250, and the CEO has a little box just like I do. I respect him. I have respect for authority figures, but when I get to talk, I may be on the screen just like he is. Or she is.

So, we have this whole new way of thinking. This way of trying to break away from our own internal thoughts that are holding us back, what are we oppressing ourselves with? I have friends that say, “Well, you have your two daughters, I’m alone.” There’s other people that are saying, “I’m alone with somebody, I don’t want to be alone with.” Or there’s somebody who would say, “It’s hard for me to meet people. I just turned 21, and I can go out to the bars but there’s no bars to go to.” It’s just relaxing with yourself and understanding that this is a time for you to reflect, improve whatever you want to work on, and then channeling that energy into writing or taking up a guitar or whatever you wanted to do, art, channeling those energies into things that are productive.

So when the pandemic is over, you’ll come out with new muscles and new ways of thinking, and you could now look at the world in a new perspective, looking at what did you do during the pandemic, did you create anything? Well, this is what I created. I was talking a little bit about people taking a year off before going to graduate school. Well, then what are you doing? Are you volunteering? Are you helping others so that … that empathy to help. Coming from Tracy and Ernesto, and they’re in the business of helping, and you’re helping right now by running this podcast.

So, imagine the people that we help that help others and the trickling down effect, you try to help those above you, help those below you, and then hope that people want help. Because some people do not want help. Ask an 18 year old, if they want help, they’re going to say no, but when they come to you, you better roll up your sleeves and help. Thanks, thanks for giving me the chance [crosstalk 00:21:14]

Chris Cancialosi:

Yeah, thank you for that perspective, I can say that, personally, I tried to make the most of my COVID experience, but I’m a really fortunate person that’d be privileged to live in an area where I’m not in a very densely populated area, I can go outside, but I did master the art of smoking a barbecue brisket over COVID. So I feel like I put that time to good use. Tracy, from your perspective, you’re working with clients all the time, and undoubtedly, COVID is a part of your work, because it’s such a part of everyone’s experience. What point should somebody really be saying, “Hey, I think I really need to reach out for some professional support here?”

Tracy Nathanson, LCSW:

That’s a really good question. Are we talking about that in terms of working, what the work life looks like, and trying to balance it and feeling that stress? Or the anticipation of going into the office? Or just in general? When you ask that question, I’m curious.

Chris Cancialosi:

That’s a really good follow up question. When I had asked it, I was originally thinking in general, kind of what are the signs that someone could say, “Hey, I really need to think about this.” But if there’s a different way to approach that, I’m certainly open.

Tracy Nathanson, LCSW:

Well, so there are people and individuals who have been living alone, working remotely, feeling incredibly isolated. This has been a very challenging time for them. So when I work with them, we really do talk, as Ernesto spoke about assessing the quality of life. They’re eating, they’re sleeping, ruminating thoughts, what they’re thinking about, are they able to reach out to friends and family and talk to them, because that is very, very important. I keep going back to isolation and feeling lonely, because there are young adults who live alone, and then there are plenty that are living with their families too, and that is very stressful.

So this has been a very interesting time for us. But I think for those, as Ernesto had spoken about before, if they’re really seeing a change in their eating, and they’re sleeping, and enjoying pleasurable activities, they’re ruminating a lot, they’re really worrying, then that’s time, you talk to a professional to reach out to a family member or a friend, to share your concerns, to feel validated, to feel that you’re not alone, because it really isn’t a singular experience, it’s really is a collective trauma. It’s a collective loss, we have all experienced some type of loss, loss of our freedom, loss of our routines, of our schedules, of predictability.

I think moving forward in transitions, people can be very vulnerable. I think we’re going to still be grappling with that transition and what that looks like in terms of that predictability and not knowing for a while, that’s going to be very, very challenging for many people.

Chris Cancialosi:

Absolutely. Yeah. Thank you for that perspective. We’re going to take a quick break right now, when we come back, we’re going to flip the script a little bit. We’ve been focused on employees experience and people in general, I’d like to flip the script when we come back and talk about employers, and how our employers, number one, working through this, and number two, how can employers think about supporting and proactively supporting their employees through this transition? So we’ll be right back.

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Chris Cancialosi:

Welcome back everybody, this is Chris Cancialosi, and I’m joined today by three fantastic panelists, Tracy Nathanson, Dr. Ernesto Lira de la Rosa and Dr. Michael Provitera, we’ve been talking about the anxiety and the collective trauma that people have been going through over the last year with this COVID pandemic. As we’re getting shots in arms and people are beginning to look forward to what the future may hold, there is some level of anxiety beginning to creep into people’s realities around, what does work look like in the future? And what is my life going to be like, now that I’ve completely up ended my existence and recalibrated to the pandemic reality?

So, what I’d like to do at this point everyone is, flip the script just a bit and talk about employers and organizations, because employers are not immune to this reality. They are at some point in their journey, trying to figure out what will the future hold for work? Are they going to go back to an office full time? Are they going to … as some organizations are doing just say, “Hey, we are fully remote from here on out?” Or is there something in between?

All of these decisions or lack of decisions impact the people that work in their organizations, which can obviously lead to anxiety and stress. So, from an organizational perspective, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on what should employers be mindful of as they are, A, developing their plans, and B, communicating and interacting with their workforces? Ernesto, why don’t we start with you?

Dr. Ernesto Lira de la Rosa:

I think in terms of the employer side, it is a difficult challenge right now to think about what we’re going to be expecting or anticipating. But it can be helpful to just consider the effects that the pandemic has had on all of us and their employees. So thinking about the individual worker circumstances as they come back, thinking about flexibility in terms of schedules, in terms of mental health benefits, or other access to health services, even childcare services, just because we’re all returning back to work, does not mean that other things are open, like schools, hopefully they do stay open.

But I think considering individual needs for their employees, and making sure that their employees are feeling supported, that the employees also know what are the policies, who can they go to if the policy maybe does not apply uniformly to all of them? I think individual supervisors can be very helpful in this regard, in being go to individuals, of understanding policy and being able to advocate for their employees as well. But I think in some ways, it’s just making sure that employers are considering how best to support their employees and thinking about not only the productivity with work, but also the well-being of their employees that are back in the office.

Chris Cancialosi:

Absolutely. Yeah. Thank you for that. Tracy, from your perspective, what are your thoughts on that, and what can employers be doing, or what should they be thinking about?

Tracy Nathanson, LCSW:

I was also thinking about what that workday schedule is going to look like, and how important it will be to be able to take mental health breaks, to walk around a little bit, get outside, get some water, because adjusting to that work environment, again, in those hours, when had more flexibility working from home or remote locations, that may be very emotionally and physically exhausting. I think that’s going to be important to discuss that in the workplace and what that break is going to look like to be able to-

Chris Cancialosi:

Yeah, so giving people the space and kind of permission to readapt because now going back to an office is abnormal for people in their life experience

Tracy Nathanson, LCSW:

Exactly, and we haven’t even talked about the commuting and what that transportation looks like, whether they’re taking public transportation, and the stress that goes with that and being around other people, or if you’re driving and again commuting. So that’s a whole other level, putting that into your day, and what is that going to look like? [crosstalk 00:30:09]

Chris Cancialosi:

Absolutely. Yeah, and I certainly want to circle back on that. Mike, I want to hear your perspective on this before we jump to that, though. So, what should employers be keeping top of mind as they’re trying to figure this out?