Offices are starting to re-open and employees are having to make decisions about their comfort level with coming back to the office. For some, the request to come back isn’t an easy one. The anxiety of being around people is something that will take time to untrain and overcome. Yet, here we are, doing the hard stuff and finding our balance as we take our leadership role and step back into the office. This is a transition that must be managed by leadership to set the stage for a smooth transition. You know you’ll have people who are excited to get back and those who have dreaded this moment since the Pandemic started. As such, it’s going to require leaders to take a closer look at the mental health of their teams over the next few months.
Here are some key signs to look out for that may signal someone is struggling with their mental health during the transition back to work.
They tell you I feel very fortunate to live in a day and age where my team feels safe to tell me when they are struggling with their mental health. Ultimately, this is what we all want so keep the door open for your team to talk about their mental health daily. Use the opportunity to ask people, “how are you feeling since we’ve come back?” and listen to their response. If they say, “fine” or “good” dig deeper. Ask “is anything feeling heavy for you? “Anything you wish you could change?” “Is there anything I can do to help you?”
They feel withdrawn It’s not uncommon for employees to silently struggle with their mental health. I’ve noticed this especially with ailments like anxiety or seasonal depression, as they can be misconstrued as being stressed or “in a funk”. It’s totally normal to get a little stressed or have a day in a funk. But someone being noticeably withdrawn is another story. Notice if you have team members who aren’t engaging in meetings and seem less engaged in their work. This is a sign that they may be struggling. The best strategy when this happens is to speak to the elephant in the room. Ask, “you’ve been feeling a little disengaged at work, is everything ok?”
They are “on edge” It is going to take a minute for people to reacclimate to the daily routine of getting into the office while balancing kids at home for the summer. The world is starting to return to normal, but the reality is that it still isn’t. We’re all going through our own version of trauma recovery as we go back to work. If you’re noticing that some people are on edge, touchy or sensitive it could be because they are in the midst of the transition and need some space to let things settle in. This state of feeling out of control can lead to anxiety and sensitivity in the workplace. This is a good time to offer flexibility and do something like let employees come in an hour late while they figure out their routines and get everyone on the same page or take an extra long lunch to run errands once a week.
They are missing lunch When someone doesn’t take the time to stop and eat lunch it’s a signal they may be neglecting their self care needs in other areas too. When I hear an employee is skipping lunch, it’s time to stop and check in. I focus on understanding why they aren’t taking lunch. Sometimes it’s because they legitimately have too much on their plate and need help prioritizing. Other times, I’ve found it’s because they run a base level of anxiety that hits high alert if they aren’t immediately available when someone needs them. We’ve all experienced the fear that someone needs something urgently and we miss the call, but when this is a pattern it’s a sign of a larger struggle with anxiety. In this situation, I teach breathing exercises I learned from Dr. Andrew Huberman on this podcast that help manage anxiety immediately. I like these because they don’t require someone to meditate for 15 minutes to get the effects, which isn’t always feasible. The technique is to take a deep breath in through the nose, hold it, then take a one more small sip of air through the nose before you release the breath. This simple technique is not only effective in stopping anxiety in its tracks, it can also be used in any situation.
They are missing work Perhaps someone is supposed to come into the office, but seems to keep having to work from home due to unforeseen circumstances or someone is taking more time off without notice. This is a good time to check in and ask, “you’ve been out of the office more than usual, is everything ok? How are you feeling? How can I help?” The inability to come to work can be a sign of depression and is a good time to require some self care for your team member or to simply give them permission to take a longer block of time off. The way I approach this is that I tell the employee they must take some time off for self care. Then I ask them, “what could you do in the next 2 hours that would help you feel better?” Sometimes it’s doing a brain dump and getting everything out of their head, sometimes it’s getting out into nature, other times it’s seeing their therapist and sometimes it’s that they legitimately need a break from work. I find it important to hold space for self care while ultimately leaving the decision of what that self care is to the employee with follow up check ins to see if it was effective.
They stop doing things they enjoy We all need things we love outside of work. It will not be uncommon for people to drop the healthy pastimes they picked up during the Pandemic as they adjust back to the hybrid workforce. The addition of commutes may simply eat up that time for a morning run. And some will find themselves without enough energy left at the end of the day. In all cases, these are signs that a check in is in order. If someone is not taking the time to pursue their passions outside of work they can not bring their best self to work. When I notice that someone has stopped doing the things they enjoy I reach out and ask, “how’s it going with (insert activity they love)? I haven’t heard you talk about it in a while.” This usually opens the conversation for why they have or haven’t been pursuing it. Then I gently coach them into making themselves a priority whatever that may look like. Simple additions like getting back into a run club or picking up reading again can go a long way for balancing mental health.
The shift back to work will not come without some mental health hurdles. We are all re-learning how to be at work without the distractions of children, pets and delivery people in the background. While that may sound like an easy transition, the reality is that for some of us it will be hard. And when it is, we all appreciate a little kindness and compassion from our boss. After all, we want to bring our best selves to work and we’re trying. But right now, we all might need to take a moment to adjust and re-integrate the office back into our lives.