Ask the Expert: How Returning to the Workplace May Affect Mental Health

A Conversation with Adam Dell, Premise Health Psychologist

Return-to-work conversations have intensified after the authorization of three COVID-19 vaccines and widespread eligibility. For most companies that shifted to a work-from-home environment, Zoom meetings, athleisure business attire, and the inability to “turn off” have been the norm for over a year. But as companies begin bringing their people back to campus, adjusting to in-office routines may impact mental health.

We sat down with Adam Dell, Psy.D., ABPP, HSPP, a Premise Health psychologist, to learn what challenges people may face and some strategies they can use to overcome them.

What mental health challenges might someone face when returning to work?

I’ve found in my clinical work that some people have flourished during the pandemic in regard to personal growth, their health, enhancing relationships with children at home, or creating a better work-life balance. In other cases, it’s been difficult because it’s intensified problems with belongingness or health, and in some cases, relationships may have suffered from being home more. People can respond to the same stimuli, like returning to the office, in completely different ways, so when it comes to challenges they may face it’s really dependent on the person. Some examples may be anxiety around changing your routine or relationship challenges that may surface as you begin to spend time back in the office.

What things may we have become accustomed to during the pandemic that will change once we go back to campus?

When the pandemic first started, many of us realized our normal rhythm of life was disrupted. For some it could have been work-life balance changes, a shift in their circadian rhythm (a person’s sleep/wake cycle) as a result of not waking up as early to commute to work, or finding they had more time to go to the gym or participate in their faith community.

As the world transitions back to something similar to where we once were, our daily routines will once again change. How much time we see our family or how much time we have to spend on self-care will change. As these shifts occur, our routines will need to shift with them.

What can someone do before they head into the office to mentally prepare?

Behavioral science suggests treating ourselves with self-compassion is one of most important things we can do, but it’s also one of the most difficult. To prepare for something challenging that may cause us stress, such as returning to the office after a year working from home, it’s important to practice self-compassion. That can be setting a normal bed and wake time, consuming healthy food or drinks, or setting aside time to take care of yourself.

What can someone do during the workday if they’re feeling overwhelmed?

Once you’re in the office, it’s important to remember that you tend to find what we’re looking for. For example, if you go into a situation with a bunch of negative biases, then that will be what shows up and transpires in your day. If you’re looking for reasons to be miserable, you’ll almost always find them. The same can be true for joy, contentment, or gratitude – we find what we’re looking for. Expectations matter, so once you get back into the office, set your expectations accurately and know you will likely have a day filled with both positive and negative stimuli, which is normal and okay.

There are also many apps available you can use if you’re feeling stressed throughout the day. The Calm app and Mindfulness Coach app are two popular choices that have hundreds of exercises to promote relaxation, even if it’s just for 30 seconds to feel more content.

What can someone do at home after a difficult workday?

It’s important to take care of yourself and “fill your cup.” Exercise, meditation, playing with children, calling a friend, scheduling “free time,” being intentional in practicing gratitude, cooking a healthy meal, or spending time gardening can boost your mood after a stressful day. By setting boundaries and making time for your own emotional wellness, you will be better prepared to show up at work and in your personal life with your full potential.

How can someone respectfully set their boundaries?

Boundaries are necessary in a world where we can only be in one place at one time and only have so much time and energy per day. Each of us has a finite amount of time, talent, and willpower, so setting boundaries help us keep appropriate things “in” and harmful things “out.” It’s easier for people to set their boundaries when they have support from those around them, like their co-workers, so help each other keep those boundaries and say no when necessary. It’s one thing to set them, but it’s another to stick to them. An example of helping one another could be, “I noticed this meeting time suggestion is during your work time block. Maybe we could shift it?” By supporting one another at work, it can help make mental health a priority.

Is there anything employers, managers, or leaders can do to make the transition easier for their employees?

One of the biggest things leaders can do is demonstrate to their employees that they care, see, and value them. Everyone has a story and leaders should take an interest in learning those stories. To help reduce the stigma of mental health in the workplace, openly discuss it and ask people what they need to work their best and what’s important for them to prioritize outside of work. Appealing to a person’s strengths yields far better results than focusing on weaknesses.

As people have become accustomed to a certain flexibility with working from home, it will be important for leaders to continue proactively giving people options for when, where, and how they work. Small tweaks can make a big difference and help people thrive. For example, some employees may need a two-hour block in the morning to help their child begin virtual school or an hour every Friday for therapy. Allowing flexibility can make transition easier for everyone.

What resources do Premise members have access to that could help them during this time of transition?

Our behavioral health offering is fully integrated with our primary care services, so our teams are always working closely to improve all of our members’ mental and emotional wellbeing. Premise just launched virtual counseling through our National Virtual Health product, so members with access to NVH behavioral health services can now schedule and conduct virtual counseling appointments by video or phone without needing a referral. Our team of counselors can provide appointment-based support across the country, giving members the flexibility to talk to someone from the privacy of their own home. Our counselors can provide support for a variety of challenges, but specific to returning to work, they can help with stress management, work-life balance, and adjustment challenges. I would also encourage our members to see if their employers offers an Employee Assistance Programs (EAP). Most offer counseling sessions which can be a huge help during times of transition.

As employers navigate the transition back to the office and work to support their employees, remember this – never underestimate the power of a simple act of kindness toward those you encounter throughout the day. Everyone’s life is a story, each including adversity and tragedy. Research shows that simple acts of kindness toward even strangers can create major benefits for the giver and receiver of the kindness, which could save someone in a desperate moment.

At Premise Health, we strive to remove the barriers that often prevent people from seeking treatment for mental illness – access issues, high cost, and lack of support. Our behavioral health services are offered along a spectrum that covers a variety of talk therapies, and our collaborative approach emphasizes evidence-based counseling and solution-focused therapy for optimal mental and emotional wellbeing. To learn more, click here.

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