The Mental Health Project is a Seattle Times initiative focused on covering mental and behavioral health issues. It is funded by Ballmer Group, a national organization focused on economic mobility for children and families. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over work produced by this team.

Returning to an office setting and all that comes with it — bumper-to-bumper commute traffic, frustrating coworkers, left-behind family members at home — is understandably stressful for many whose pandemic-era routines are changing this spring.

Some may be concerned about safety and coronavirus restrictions as offices reopen. Others may be dreading change, after developing systems at home that helped create a more balanced life.

Many jobs have required in-person work throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. For other people who have been working remotely, returning to an office environment can bring a range of emotions.

“There’s some anger because people have proven over the last couple years that remote working is something that works,” said Andrew Rogers, a licensed mental health counselor based in Seattle and Tacoma. “They can be responsible and get their work done while still working from home, which gives them the opportunity to do things in their life that they didn’t have enough time for otherwise.” 

On the other hand, some may be thrilled about seeing coworkers in person, maybe for the first time. Or excited to have a quiet working space away from a house full of people.

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The fact that many people may have anxiety or uncertainty about going back to an office shows how much we settled into a world that we never could have imagined before, said Julia Bonnheim, a licensed mental health counselor in Seattle.

“Use the resiliency from the last two years as motivation to keep going, and trust that the next challenge that we face we can get through as well,” Bonnheim said.

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The Seattle Times spoke with mental health counselors to get tips on how those of us experiencing anxiety around returning to an in-person office environment can manage stress.

“If you’re having really strong anxiety, seek the help of a professional,” said John Buscher, a licensed mental health counselor in Seattle.

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Treat yourself kindly

Practice giving yourself grace and compassion as you re-integrate into a new routine, Rogers said. Recognize that major transitions are hard, and we deserve to be kind to ourselves. In doing so, you can also acknowledge and grieve the loss of your previous routine that you may have created in the last two years.

It can take time to adjust, Bonnheim said. If you start to feel anxious thoughts, ask yourself where they might be coming from and why they’re getting you stirred up.

You can say to yourself: “Hey, I’m not sure these anxious thoughts are serving me, so I want to explore what’s going on.”

Do you have a fear of getting sick? Are you afraid of giving an illness to a loved one? Are you nervous about routine changes? Is it something bigger? 

“Anxiety is often trying to tell ourselves something,” Bonnheim said. “The more we can welcome those parts of ourselves with curiosity and gentleness, the more that we can soothe ourselves.”

Extend that compassion to others, who may be in a different place emotionally than you, Buscher said: “Other people might not be as comfortable as you are with socializing or not wearing a mask. Do what makes you feel comfortable, be OK with what makes other people comfortable, and don’t take anything personally.”

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Focus on what could go right

We often fixate on fears of the unknown and predict the worst possible outcome. We tell ourselves we do this to prepare if the worst happens. But when we ruminate on these problems, we unconsciously tell ourselves that a negative outcome is the only possible option.

The antidote is focusing on what we do have — the benefits of our situation. Rogers recommends his clients use a gratitude journal to train their brain to start seeing positives and focus on things that are going well.

“Doing this practice over and over begins to train our brain and strengthen new neural pathways so it becomes more of our default setting over time,” he said.

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For example, isolation had a big impact on our lives, so we may have forgotten how much we enjoy being around people and having a random conversation with a coworker, said DeHeavalyn Pullium, a licensed marriage and family therapist.

She encourages clients to savor their wins. “When something good happens, pause and let yourself think about how good it felt to do really well at that meeting you led or really rock that presentation.”

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As an exercise, try asking yourself why you shouldn’t worry, John said. “We make up a narrative about why we should worry. We also need to feed the counter narrative of that.”

Try to remember times when you were new to a job. Maybe it was awkward in the beginning, but you eventually found friends and things got better.

Create predictability

Establish some grounding before your first day by finding a routine that works for you, Rogers said. Think about how you want your day to look from the time you wake up to the time you get to work. By setting up rituals, you can help eliminate uncertainty.

Try building in some physical activity to get your body moving and carve out some reflection time for meditation or setting intention for the day.

Before the week, plan out your schedule, pack your lunch and figure out what you’re going to wear every day, Buscher said. He also suggested drinking less coffee, which has a strong effect on anxiety levels, or switching to tea. 

You can even practice conversations. If you’re nervous about how to answer “how have you been?” write down an answer and rehearse it until you feel comfortable.

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Give yourself patience if it takes some time to settle into a routine or something you had hoped to incorporate doesn’t quite fit.

Set boundaries

You might find your energy drained upon returning to an office space. To help avoid burnout, take small breaks throughout the day, Rogers said.

“I’d recommend (breaks) at the top of every hour,” Rogers said. “Get up and move your body in some way or do something that allows your mind to take a brief rest.”

That could be exercise, chatting with a coworker about your weekend, doing a quick puzzle, or eating a healthy snack.

It’s also important to set personal and professional boundaries that protect your mental health, Pullium said. Some people have been hesitant to return to in-person work because of sexism, racism and other workplace harassment.

Organizations should look at their mission statements to ensure they are actually incorporating diversity and inclusion and not creating a culture where people feel tokenized, she said.

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As individuals, it’s about self care and finding your community that will validate you, help you feel seen, and give advice. “Having safe spaces to be with other Black colleagues or professionals was really beneficial for me,” Pullium said.

Some people worry that working remotely will cause them to miss out on opportunities, professional or social, by not being visible.

Pullium recommends managers promote social events or professional opportunities through multiple channels, like Slack and email, so that remote employees don’t miss hearing about them.

If you’re concerned about socializing, remind yourself that you can choose to decline an invititation to an after-work event because you need time to decompress, Bonnheim said. You can also plan ahead for how you want to handle greeting people or approaching a masked or mask-free environment.

“It can be helpful to have a plan in your pocket so that if you’re in an uncomfortable situation, you can take a minute, compose yourself and take a walk outside so you don’t have to be coming up with everything on the fly,” she said.

Advocate for your needs

There can be risk in disclosing a mental illness diagnosis with an employer, but it’s important to remember you cannot be fired for doing so.

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“If a person is really struggling, they owe it to themselves” to tell their employer, Rogers said. “It’s a form of compassion to advocate for their needs.”

If you bring up your concerns to your boss, treat these conversations the way you might ask for a raise or promotion: Frame it in the context of how doing your best work serves the company, Pullium recommends. Come up with your own solutions and be open to brainstorming.

For example, you might say: “I know that I’ll be able to give you my best work if I can create this structure for my family. Is there any way that can flex my hours or time so that I can still accommodate this need and be more present for the work that I’m doing here?”

If you’re having trouble focusing with people walking around, you might ask if you can move to an office or other workspace where you’re more separated from peers. Or you might ask to work in a hybrid schedule, with a few days in the office and a few days at home, or stay fully remote.

“If you don’t feel comfortable advocating for what you need, you can have a health care professional help,” Buscher said. He wrote a letter for a client saying that moving to California to work for a company he’s already been working for remotely would be too unsettling. 

Managers need to be able to listen to their employees and validate their experiences, Bonnheim said. Something like, “I know it has been really hard. What can I do to help better support you in this situation?”

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If employees have high mental health needs, managers should refer them to mental health resources available within the company such as an Employee Assistance Program that offers therapy sessions.

Managers can also encourage people to utilize their paid time off or sick time for mental health days.

“Just asking if someone is doing okay, being able to provide that social connection to someone, is really important,” Bonnheim added.