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Back-to-office anxiety?

Jay Yuno |

On June 1, 2021, Texas A&M University employees will return full-time to their offices, classrooms, and laboratories on the flagship campus after more than a year of working offsite due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many will feel at least some back-to-the-office anxiety. How can employees best manage this stress? How can colleges, departments, and agencies help ease their employees back into an office routine? We asked three experts in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, College of Liberal Arts, to weigh in.

Stephanie C. Payne, professor, examines how individual differences facilitate (or inhibit) the effectiveness of human resource practices and how organizational initiatives can be implemented to be mutually beneficial for both the employee and the organization.

How can A&M employees best prepare themselves mentally to return to their offices?

Some employees will be very eager to get back to their old routine and look forward to opportunities to connect with colleagues in the same space. This is likely to range from periodically crossing paths with coworkers in the hallway and other common spaces to more formalized face-to-face meetings. These interactions are also likely to be both work-related as well as more social like having lunch with a colleague. Humans are creatures of habit. We thrive on routines. Overall, it will be helpful to cautiously embrace the things we have missed.

That said, not everyone is eager to go back for various reasons. For those who are anxious about the virus, they should be encouraged to continue to practice all the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations and communicate their concerns to their supervisor. Fundamentally, employees are entitled to a safe work environment and should be encouraged to identify any hazards. For those who have found that they can be equally, if not more productive, at home and therefore are less eager to return to campus, they should discuss with their supervisor the advantages and disadvantages of the two working environments and work to maximize the benefits for all. Ideally, supervisors will be empathetic and work to find compromises whenever possible. For example, working from home may have reduced the number of interruptions by students walking by a staff member’s desk and asking for directions. Perhaps there are other ways to manage these interruptions with more signage in the building and/or staff members taking turns being available to students for these “drive-bys.”

How can employees ease their transition from an unstructured home environment to a more structured office environment?

Although the environment contributes to structure, so do our working styles and habits. For many of us, our calendar imposes structure with specific meeting times, lunch breaks, and other temporally determined transitions and activities. Like many other transitions, employees may see the transition back to campus as an opportunity for a “fresh start,” much like a new year and an opportunity to start some new routines or procedures.

What kinds of initiatives can colleges and departments use to assist employees in making a smooth transition?

First, communication is critical to good working relationships. Ideally, communication flows in all directions, both up and down the chain of command. As always, it is important for employees to know what is expected of them and to get feedback on how they are doing. If expectations have changed in any way, this needs to be clear.

Second, in some occupations, it is quite common to have an “after action review” or debrief following a big event. Returning to campus presents a prime time to reflect on what went well and what didn’t go so well over the last year. Some employees have found new ways to do things that work better and should likely be retained. For example, the Office of Graduate and Professional Studies rolled out DocuSign and now all graduate student paperwork is handled electronically! I sure hope we retain that!

Third, many organizations are doing more of a phased approach to transitioning back to the office, allowing employees to work at home at times and at the office other times. Texas A&M continues to offer an alternative work location option that employees may want to discuss with their supervisors.

How can colleges and departments help employees feel safe if some of their co-workers are unvaccinated? What can employees do to help themselves feel safe?

It is imperative that we continue to follow the Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.  Although we are no longer required to wear masks on campus, colleges and departments should not discourage people who prefer to wear masks from doing so. We need to respect that there are multiple reasons why people may prefer to continue to wear a mask, including but not limited to those who have not been vaccinated and those who are more vulnerable to the virus or have loved ones in these conditions. Colleges and departments should also continue to minimize close contact with others and make cleaning materials available for employees to sanitize common spaces. They should also discourage sick employees from coming to work

Employees should be encouraged to communicate to their supervisor and coworkers their comfort level when it comes to interacting with others. Some employees have special circumstances that may make them more anxious than others. The pandemic has reminded all of us of the importance of good hygiene and decontamination practices. We should continue to embrace best practices like washing hands, avoid touching our faces, and sanitizing common spaces and equipment.

We have also introduced some new barriers like Plexiglas in front of reception areas or between student carousels that we should probably retain.  Likewise, we should revisit previous overcrowding practices of cramming people into a meeting room or dragging in additional chairs to accommodate more people. We should follow room-occupancy limits. We may also want to continue some virtual meetings over Zoom or the like. It may not be necessary to drive over to West, Main, or RELLIS campus for a meeting. Finally, we should continue to take advantage of free COVID-19 testing and vaccinations!

Annmarie MacNamara, assistant professor, uses laboratory methods to investigate emotions in psychiatric health and disease with the long-term goal of reducing the cost and suffering associated with emotional disorders, such as anxiety and depression, by improving diagnosis and guiding new treatments.

How can returning A&M employees recognize and manage common workplace anxieties they might not have dealt with for a long time?

Sometimes, a place, person or situation that is no longer threatening can still feel threatening because of the past. Luckily, we know that with repeated exposure to these types of situations, our brain self-corrects and learns that, in fact, we no longer have anything to worry about. So an employee returning to work can remind herself that feeling anxious is normal, and will pass with time, so long as she keeps going to work.

Which emotions are they likely to experience as they move from working in an unstructured home environment to a more structured office environment?

I think this would bring a mix of emotions, some good, some bad. For some people, working from home was easier, more pleasant, and potentially even more productive. For others, it might have slowly gotten to them—made them feel out of touch with their peers and the real world, and might also have involved challenges like caring for other family members who were at home or sharing limited resources at home. Regardless of an employee’s experience, returning to work will be a change and change is stressful, even when positive. Keeping that in mind, knowing others are likely going through something similar and taking things one step at a time can be helpful.

How can colleges and departments anticipate these anxieties and aid their employees in coping with them productively?

Managers can check in with employees to see how they are doing and to ask if there is anything they need that would make the transition easier. Departments can be mindful that employees may need some time to get up to speed again. They can also work to continue enacting COVID-related policies that employees are comfortable with.

How can employees manage their emotions and feel safe if some of their co-workers are unvaccinated?

Science is telling us that, for the average vaccinated individual, there is very little chance of getting COVID-19. So most who are vaccinated can rest assured knowing that they are safe, even if they feel unsafe. Just reminding yourself that your emotions are there to protect you or to tell you what is harmful, but sometimes they get this wrong, may help you accept emotions without feeling that they are telling you the whole story.

Mindy Bergman, professor, conducts research in occupational health psychology, where she investigates the effects of organizational climate on workplace behaviors and individual well-being and in organizational commitment, which is the motivated bond that regulates the maintenance of the relationship between workers and employing organizations.

How is the transition from an unstructured home environment to a more structured office environment likely to affect workplace safety?

One of the biggest challenges of getting back to work will be refreshing on workplace safety protocols. It seems funny that people who have worked safely for years prior to the pandemic might forget how to work safely now, but for some workers it has been a while since they were regularly in their offices or labs. Further, there have probably been changes in these workplaces since the start of the pandemic, including new equipment and new personnel. Some steps that should help the transition back to the workplace include:

  • Holding a safety meeting before the return to work to go over protocols, highlighting common errors and new information. This can be done via Zoom prior to the return-to-work.
  • Conducting orientation sessions for all personnel returning to the workspace. This can be done in small groups or one-on-one prior to the full return-to-work. The goal of the orientation is to refresh people on protocols and update them on new ones in the space itself, without the pressure of doing work at that time. It will also allow people time to ask questions and modify procedures to account for pandemic protocols as well.
  • Using safety coaches during the first weeks of return to work and at any time a protocol is reintroduced. This means that workgroups should identify people who are really good at safely performing a protocol and have them serve as coaches and resources when protocols are reintroduced.
  • Setting a slower-than-usual tempo. So many of us are excited to get back to work at our usual productive pace. But in the first few weeks back, it’s important to think of this as a time of onboarding for everyone, including long-standing employees. Taking a little extra time to complete the work, especially in checking safety protocols, will go a long way to transitioning back to safe work.

How can colleges, departments, and lab directors assist employees in re-committing to safety in the workplace?

It’s important to remember that people want their workplaces to be safe, but they don’t always know how to make it safe. In our return to work, people will want to be safe but are out of practice. Employees will also have to navigate some pandemic mitigation protocols into their usual work and safety protocols.

Leadership commitment is a key driver of workplace safety. It is the job of leadership in each lab and each unit to set the tone for safety in the workplace. This is true for both our workplace safety and our pandemic mitigation efforts. Unwavering commitment to our safety expectations is critical. Leaders should make their commitment to safety known in word and in deed. They should speak positively and frequently about work safety and remind workers of its importance. Leaders should always wear work-related personal protective equipment and follow safety protocols. 

Leadership should also be supportive of employees. Leaders should acknowledge that some of the work will be harder to do, and to do safely, because of pandemic mitigation protocols. Leaders should be understanding that there will be a relearning curve to all workplace protocols, even for some that could be done at home. Leaders should be as flexible as possible when it comes to return-to-work expectations, as childcare and eldercare options might be limited and quarantines will still occur. This is especially critical to keep in mind because the youngest members of our community are not yet eligible to receive any vaccines. Good leadership at this moment is no different from other leadership—model good workplace behavior, support your workers, and provide flexibility when possible.

How can colleges and departments create a climate of safety and help employees feel more secure if some of their co-workers are unvaccinated?

As I respond to this on Friday, May 21, 2021, the CDC has just indicated that it is safe in many circumstances for fully vaccinated people to remove their masks indoors, regardless of the vaccine status of the people around them. Further, Governor Abbott has banned government entities and officials from restricting activities or mandating masks in response to COVID-19. My response here reflects this.

A climate of safety for the pandemic is not very different from any other climate for safety in the workplace. Management must take it seriously and communicate their commitment in words and deeds. Protective gear should be available to everyone who needs it or wants it. Best practices should be reviewed before they are needed. Everyone needs to recognize that workplace safety isn’t personal safety—it’s group safety. Everyone’s behavior affects everyone else’s safety.

It’s also important to remember that many work units engage with the public—potential students, former students, vendors, community members, patients, clients, repair workers. We also have workers who move around campus regularly (mail systems, maintenance, janitorial). This introduces an additional level of risk in many offices. Leadership teams should highlight these risks when discussing best practices for COVID-19 mitigation strategies in the work unit.

The best available science indicates that vaccines are the best protection against COVID19 infection and serious illness as well as spreading the coronavirus to others. Vaccines protect you and they protect the people around you.