In this latest wave of uncertainty around Covid-19, the Delta variant and breakthrough infections have complicated plans for a smooth return to the physical workplace, reigniting concerns over safety, even among vaccinated workers.
For those who developed a mental health condition over the course of the pandemic, or whose existing disorders became exacerbated after a prolonged period of fear and isolation, working from home may have offered a refuge. The coping mechanisms many have cultivated — stepping out for air to soothe a panic attack, practicing a quick meditation to calm racing thoughts — will be harder to carry out under the fluorescent lights of an open-plan office.
We spoke to experts about ways to potentially ease anxiety as some workers head back to their desks.
Anxiety will be common.
After a year and a half of split-screen meetings and a morning commute from the bed to the kitchen, getting back to the physical office will likely be a big adjustment for everyone. Disruption fuels stress, mental health experts said, and the shift back to the physical work space presents yet another big transition.
“Our brains don’t like uncertainty,” said Dr. Judson Brewer, the director of research and innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center and author of “Unwinding Anxiety.” The routines that many of us developed while working from home — a morning walk, an afternoon cup of tea, cooking lunch — offered a cobbled-together sense of certainty, he said, even throughout the worst of the pandemic. In the office, workers have less control. “Fear plus uncertainty equals anxiety,” he said.
It’s important to identify which elements of coming back to the office you’re afraid of. If you’re stressed about taking public transportation, for example, leading up to your return-to-office date, it might help to “rehearse” part of your commute, said Dr. Franklin Schneier, co-director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at the New York State Psychiatric Institute and a psychiatry lecturer at Columbia University Medical Center. Try taking the subway for a few stops, or heading to the neighborhood around your office building and walking around to re-acclimate yourself.
Overall, incorporating self-care practices like exercising, getting enough sleep and limiting alcohol consumption can also help leading up to the return date, said Dr. Joe Bienvenu, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Have soothing tools at the ready.
If you expect to experience symptoms like panic attacks, dissociation, flashbacks or general anxiety at work, have some coping strategies ready to go ahead of time.
These tools shouldn’t be complicated or involve too many steps that you need to remember, Dr. Brewer said. You can keep a sticky note at your desk that lists your coping mechanisms. He recommends a simple “five-finger breathing” routine to address anxiety: Hold one hand in front of you, with your fingers spread out. Trace the outside of your entire hand with the index finger on your other hand, taking your time, and breathing in when you trace up a finger, then out when you trace down. This exercise helps ground people in their direct physical experience, while slowing down their breathing, he said. It’s also quick and discreet.
The American Psychological Association recommends a number of grounding exercises you can do at your desk, including a quick body scan and a simple breathing practice. You can also home in on a straightforward task, such as counting backward by three in your head, to focus your brain and untangle racing thoughts.
Small sensory hits can help anchor you in the present moment, too. Dionne Hart, a psychiatrist based in Minneapolis, suggested heading to the bathroom and splashing cold water on your face, or placing an ice pack on your wrist, if you have access to the office freezer.
Cognitive strategies are a useful framework for dealing with anxiety, Dr. Brewer added. You can remind yourself that panic attacks are not dangerous — and that you’ve always gotten through them in the past.
Help may be at hand.
If you find yourself struggling at work, you may benefit from asking for an adjustment to make the transition back to the office more manageable. The Americans With Disabilities Act offers protections for workers with physical and mental impairments, and grants you the right to ask for a reasonable accommodation if you have a mental health condition.
The word “reasonable” is key, and it can be tricky to identify, said Darcy Gruttadaro, director of the Center for Workplace Mental Health at the American Psychiatric Association Foundation. “It’s a process of negotiation,” Ms. Gruttadaro said. If an employer believes the accommodation request is not reasonable, they have to make the case for why that is; the onus is on the employee to prove they can perform their job duties with the accommodation.
“It’s not just anything goes,” she said. “If the employer believes it will be an undue burden, it will be costly, and they can make that case, then they don’t have to provide that accommodation.”
Examples of reasonable accommodations include a more flexible work schedule, time off for medical appointments and therapy, and a quieter work environment, said Cheryl Bates-Harris, a senior disability advocacy specialist at the National Disability Rights Network.
You don’t have to disclose a mental health disability in the workplace, but if you feel you need the accommodation to better perform your job, you almost always will need medical documentation, she said, which can take the form of a note from a doctor or therapist.
If you have a supportive manager and you feel comfortable disclosing a mental health condition, Ms. Gruttadaro recommended talking directly to them about an accommodation. If you do not feel comfortable going to your manager, you can speak with your company’s human resources department.
The Family and Medical Leave Act may also be an option, although it only applies to certain employers. Under federal law, the act provides people with protection to take unpaid leave for up to 12 weeks; the length of a leave can vary under state guidelines. To qualify, employees must show they have a serious health condition, typically via certification from a treating mental health provider. The F.M.L.A. is for conditions that are so severe that going to work is “nearly impossible,” Ms. Gruttadaro said. “That’s a pretty high threshold to prove.”
If you think you are being retaliated against for asking for accommodations, you can file a claim of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under the A.D.A.
“This is a really difficult time for all of us,” Ms. Gruttadaro said. “The more employers can be flexible and really think about reassuring people coming back to the workplace, and being open and communicative and really checking in, they may be able to reduce the high levels of anxiety that many people are experiencing.”