We have written some small actions you can take to combat anxiety and other pressures you maybe be feeling as the nation gets back into office routines.
There is no playbook for returning to the workplace after a global pandemic. This is a first for us all, but there are science-backed ways to manage your stress, communicate more effectively with others, and keep up productivity during this unprecedented time.
Here are 10 microsteps, to help navigate some of the issues we’ll be facing in the new normal of the workplace.
While we can’t eliminate stress from our lives, we can learn to manage it. Research from Stanford’s Precision Mental Health and Wellness Centre shows that when you ignore and allow stress to become cumulative and overwhelming, it can lead to mental health challenges such as depression and anxiety.
However, getting to know the source of your stress, how you deal with it and what helps you to recharge, you’ll be better equipped to prevent it taking over in the future.
1. Write down your top worry associated with returning to work
Have you ever tried to simply name your anxieties? Clinical researchers call this the “name it to tame it” strategy because it actually slows down the brain’s negative response and reduces stress. Using neuroimaging techniques, UCLA researchers were able to show that verbalising our emotions actually makes anger, sadness, and pain less intense.
Labelling an emotion, or putting your feelings into words, allows them to inform you rather than overwhelm you. Once you’ve articulated an emotion you can make a plan to address the worry. You might even realise that the concern is less overwhelming than it seemed before you put a name on it.
2. Choose a calming activity to consistently practice during your commute
Commuting is a part of the day that can either be a source of stress or an opportunity to find calm. If you’re taking public transportation, listen to a favourite playlist. When walking outside, focus on your breath, or take a moment to look around you and appreciate the sights and sounds.
A study in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine shows that adding moments of leisure to your day can lower your brain’s and your body’s response to stress, decreasing heart rate and levels of cortisol (the “stress hormone”). They can also improve your mood, sense of fulfilment, and overall well-being, both in the immediate and in the long term.
3. Identify your top stress signals that tell you your mental battery is running low
Stress is the body’s natural response to a threat, the human fight-or-flight. But, the problem is chronic stress which occurs when acute stressors don’t go away, keeping us stuck in that fight-or-flight mode even when there’s no actual threat. This kind of perpetual stress can have long-term consequences for our mental and physical health, which is why it’s essential to become attuned to our brain’s need for a pause and reset.
Unfortunately, many of us have become so accustomed to this heightened state of stress that we may not recognise the signals at all. Common signals to watch out for include rapid heart rate, rumination, difficulty thinking clearly, and more frequent social conflicts. Noticing when you’re overstressed will help you determine when you need a “microbreak” throughout your day.
4. Limit time on your phone before bed
Not only does sleep loss have a negative effect on your ability to process emotional information, the European Sleep Research Society found that it also impacts our ability to pick up on the emotions of others.
During the pandemic, our phones have been a trigger for many people’s anxieties and fears. With constant pings of news updates and notifications, our phones have us constantly on high alert.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, phone notifications delay REM sleep, which is critical for learning and storing new memories. This turns into a vicious cycle: Poor sleep, in turn leads to higher levels of anxiety. Disconnecting will help you recharge and sleep better.
5. Defining a work-life balance
A silver lining of the pandemic is that it has allowed us to acknowledge the importance of caring for our well-being. During the crisis, we experienced increased stress due to boundary-less work and constant distractions. (There’s been a 300 percent increase in online searches for “How to get your brain to focus” since February!)
We realised that our family lives simply couldn’t remain separate from our professional lives. Thrive Sciences found that 89 percent of employees experienced challenges with balancing work and home/life responsibilities.
Now we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make caring for our mental and physical well-being a non-negotiable part of productivity and success. We can finally stop the delusion that burnout is the price we must pay for success.
6. Share one well-being / personal development goal with your manager, and let them know how they can support you
This might be protected time for focused work during the day, a quick workout during your lunch break, or flexibility in your start time so that you can avoid a busy train.
We may be returning to the office, but many of us will still be experiencing significant physical and emotional impacts of the pandemic. So, carving out time for your well-being is essential. Sharing your well-being goals and priorities with your manager and colleagues fosters accountability and encouragement.
In a 2019 study, 90 percent of employees reported that they perform better when their company supports their emotional well-being. Yet the same study showed that only 41 percent of managers routinely ask about emotional well-being during 1-2-1 meetings. Being compassionately direct about your needs will provide your manager with the knowledge they need to ensure you’re able to be at your best.
7. Each morning, write down the top three things you want to accomplish that day
Prioritising has become more crucial than ever as we return to work. By creating a specific list of priorities each day, you are able to focus your intentions and create a specific plan that is more likely to lead to follow-through, effort, and performance.
Writing a list of priorities also helps fight distractions from other lurking “to do” items that you are not planning to complete that day. Unfulfilled goals weigh down the mind. This is explained by something called the Zeigarnik effect: People remember unfinished or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks because our brains tend to focus more on the tasks that are incomplete.
Researchers at Florida State University found that committing to a specific plan toward accomplishing a goal not only makes it easier to accomplish that goal, but also frees up our brain to focus on other things in the meantime.
So, give yourself that structure and clarity your brain needs by focusing on three objectives every day—and when they’re done, declare an end to your workday, knowing you’ll come back tomorrow recharged.
Each of us has faced unique challenges during the pandemic that will inform our experience when we return to the office. We may be grieving for lost loved ones, reeling from financial hurdles, navigating around cancelled life events, coping with caregiver anxiety, or managing anxiety about contracting the virus as the country reopens.
Given all of the ongoing stressors, there’s never been a greater need in the workplace to communicate and lead with compassion. We hope these tips are useful for you to manage your stress and anxieties as you return to the office!