Employees are going back to work — and they’re bringing their anxiety with them.
The pandemic has been rough on mental health, and now, workers are facing the stress of returning to their offices. While work has always been a major source of angst — 9 in 10 employees say that their workplace stress affects their mental health, according to a 2021 report by Mental Health America — these days, people feel more empowered to open up about their anxiety to their superiors.
Steve Pemberton, chief human resources officer for the HR firm Workhuman, told The Post there’s been a “ballpark estimated 100% increase” in workers coming forward to talk about their anxiety in recent months.
“There’s a lot of people who feel like ‘we’re back to normal but I’m not back to normal,’ ” he said, noting that companies around the nation are aware of the problem, and doing their best to address it.
In fact, things have gotten so bad that in Kentucky, a 29-year-old lab technician had a panic attack after his co-workers threw him a surprise birthday party. Kevin Berling was fired just one week after the incident — and was subsequently awarded $450,000 in damages when he won his wrongful termination suit.
Anxiety or excuse?
Not everyone believes the epidemic of anxiety is to blame for workers’ woes.
“What we’re getting is a category of people who are either convincing themselves that their mental health inhibits work or are trying to take advantage of a broader trend of mental health in this nation to keep from having to do things they feel are unnecessary,” Stephen Soukup, author of “The Dictatorship of Woke Capital: How Political Correctness Captured Big Business,” told The Post. He believes a new glut of workers are claiming anxiety is the problem, when really they don’t want to commute or return to the office.
Imposters uses buzzwords like “anxiety” “to their advantage,” Soukup continued. “That can be manipulated as well, saying, ‘Oh look, everybody has problems now, it’s not just me, so you better let me stay home because you don’t know if I’m faking.’ ”
It seems many bosses are still taking a hardline with “disgruntled employees who would demand fully remote work,” according to April survey data from background check company GoodHire.
The survey found that 77% of managers “said that severe consequences would occur – firings, pay cuts, loss of promotion opportunities, loss of benefits, loss of paid-time off” in these cases.
“We’ve got to bring people back to work and open up our city,” Gristedes CEO John Catsimatidis told The Post.
The supermarket mogul noted his company remained open throughout the pandemic. Still, he added: “People have a lot of sensitivities, and you have to be careful with their feelings because not everybody is made of steel . . . If they’re not doing well, they should get help.”
Not all anxiety is alike
It’s true that anxiety comes in many different shades, according to Morra Aarons-Mele, who runs “The Anxious Achiever” podcast about mental health in the workplace.
“For some people, it’s around perfectionism and imposter syndrome, like they will fail and can’t measure up,” she told The Post. “Others have certain people who trigger them. Everyone can relate to that boss that set us off or that colleague who reminds you of a jerk from high school.”
She adds that adjusting to life after the pandemic — with challenges like commuting and showing up on time back on the table — is also a significant source of stress.
And while she supports workers who speak up about their mental health issues, she also pointed out that not all anxiety is actually a problem.
“Anxiety can actually keep us on the top of our game, that’s why we have it,” Aarons-Mele said, adding that a little bit of pressure at work can motivate people to work to their full potential.
That mindset is clinically supported, according to Manhattan-based psychotherapist Dana Dorfman.
“There is a bell curve for stress and anxiety. The sweet spot is when you’re feeling challenged, energized, focused, determined and invested,” she said.
The “benchmark” for when anxiety has inflated beyond healthy motivation is when an individual “can’t sleep, eat, concentrate, complete tasks or essential work responsibilities,” Dorfman said.
“Then it becomes important to notify somebody, whether it be a boss or HR,” Dorfman added, noting that those with psychological documentation can go on disability or be accommodated for the mental illness.
Lindsey Pollak, a workplace expert and corporate keynote speaker, who suffers from generalized anxiety disorder, told The Post that a little bit of understanding goes a long way.
“Managers don’t need to be mental health experts, but they should know where to redirect employees for help and be aware of their situations. You don’t give Champagne to an employee in [Alcoholics Anonymous] after all.”
Still, managers are feeling the pressure of having to play psychologists as well as supervisors.
“There’s one organization we’re working with that the employees banded together to go to their supervisor [and] talk [about] the stress they were feeling,” said Cynthia Orme, senior consultant for Nonprofit HR.
In response, the leader “panicked” and immediately feared “compliance” threats of a lawsuit or getting in trouble rather than coming up with a solution that benefited both sides, Orme said.
When she and her team were called in to de-escalate the situation, Orme said it became a teachable moment for leadership.
“We were able to coach the supervisor, saying, ‘It’s OK, this is actually the new normal for you as a leader. To interface with employees where they’re feeling stressed.’ “