Coronavirus (Covid-19) and back-to-the-office stress: 5 things you should know

Office desk

The coronavirus pandemic changed the face of work for everyone in 2020, but those returning to their in-person jobs are facing unique stressors. It is not clear how many employees have transitioned back to working in person, but there are a few numbers. While only 8% of Manhattan office workers have returned to their workspaces according to an August survey from the Partnership for New York City, another poll found that nationally, 25% of office workers have resumed in-person work.

Meanwhile, many teachers, hospitality and transportation workers have returned to their workplaces. And, of course, some never really left — firefighters, front-line healthcare workers and grocery store employees, for example.

ClearHealthCosts spoke to employees and mental health professionals from around the country about going back to the office and found out that a myriad of concerns are keeping employees up at night. Here are five things you need to know.

Worry about catching the virus from others

Danielle Bergeron Ingram, a Middlebury, Vt., psychologist, said many of her clients who have gone back to work have reported an increase of fear.

“I think it’s the uncertainty of being around people who may not be socially distancing and not knowing their safety practices,” Bergeron Ingram said. “For example, whether they’re washing their hands or keeping good hygiene.”

And people fear exposure to the coronavirus not only at their workplace. Neil Sofge, a New York City computer system administrator who returned to work in September, says he feels extremely safe at his workspace, but his commute is another story.

“The only real stressor is the subway ride,” Sofge said. “You’re on the subway with a bunch of people and you can’t be sure everyone is going to behave.”

Sofge said that while almost everyone he sees in the trains wear masks, the occasional exception is enough to make him concerned.

“Even if one out of 50 people is just sitting there, naked, exhaling into your air, it endangers all of us,” he said.

Bergeron Ingram said the sense of powerlessness can lead to an increase in anxiety levels, especially for those who may already be dealing with an anxiety disorder.

For part-time workers, many of whom are uninsured, the stakes of catching coronavirus on the job are even higher — and so is the stress. Uninsured people face barriers in getting tested and treated and are more likely to avoid getting care because of costs, according to a study from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The same study found that uninsured adults tend to work in jobs that may increase their risk of exposure to the virus. This includes construction and restaurant industry workers who interact with the public, many of whom have returned to work after the shutdown.

“The problems are endemic to this type of work and this type of institution and the set-up of the industry,” said a barista in New York City, who is uninsured and recently required a Covid test. He spoke to ClearHealthCosts on the condition of anonymity because he feared backlash from his employer.

Your job — or workspace — looks different during a pandemic

Workspaces that have opened back up to employees or the public have new rules to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. And now, some people whose jobs never entailed janitorial work are finding themselves with additional duties from cleaning bathrooms to wiping down surfaces.

“I’ve been at my branch for 14 years and I’ve never seen anything quite like it,” said Susan Williams, a Las Vegas area librarian who returned to working in-person in July. “All my colleagues are stressed out.”

Among other things, Williams said she and her colleagues now have to clean all the books that come in and manage a quarantine system.

“We’re all being very, very diligent, and it’s very stressful because it’s not something you’re used to,” Williams said.

Annabelle Coote, a Great Barrington, Mass., therapist, said that it’s not simply the change in duties that leads to an increased stress load. Rather, it’s that change in combination with the loss of people’s sense of stability and routine at their jobs — a place where many spend a third of their daily lives.

“The uncertainty and the lack of predictability can create a sense of threat,” Coote said.

Coote said that sense of threat is actually a neurobiological response to change in our brain and body systems. The fact that it’s happening on a biological level is why some people are not always conscious of the uptick of stress in their lives. That’s also why it’s possible to feel that sense of stress whether or not the change involves a direct risk.

“One client who had returned to the office shared her distress that her work station had been moved and was no longer near a window,” Coote said. “Uncertainty, even about where we’ll be doing our job leads to a sense that we don’t have that predictability we used to rely on. And that creates an underlying unease.”

One of your new duties involves interpersonal conflict

Many of the people ClearHealthCosts interviewed spoke about one new role that took a disproportionate toll on their sense of wellbeing: having to enforce new coronavirus safety regulations, especially mask-wearing.

“Customers come in with a wide range of understanding about following guidelines,” the New York barista said. “Having to be the policer is not something I want to have to be. It can create an antagonist relationship or encounter where there shouldn’t have to be one.”

While employees from a variety of fields said that reminding people to properly wear masks in the workplace clocked in on their list of stressors, those whose jobs require them to interact with the public reported more — and more intense — confrontations.

“It’s just amazing to me how many people have taken this whole mask issue to be one of those ‘let’s just talk back to the authority’ things,” Susan Williams said. “And in my case, it’s just the little librarian. I’ve never had so many people talk back to me, or just vent.”

The contentious aspect can take more of a toll on workers than even they expected.

“The mask patrolling is stressful,” said Kate Coluccio, a Pittsburgh area library director who went back to working in-person in July. “Before the pandemic, on a typical day, we would get 100-200 people at the library. Now, crowds are down, but even if we get up to 75, everybody is aware that they worked really hard, because of all these interactions.”

Anticipatory anxiety

Not everyone whole is stressing about returning to the office has actually had to go in yet. Andrea Coleman, a South Hadley, Mass., social worker, said many of her clients who are still working from home have reported increased anxiety around potentially being called back to work.

“I’m seeing people who have a lot of difficulty sleeping, a lot of racing thoughts, panic, feelings like shortness of breath. Really feeling only safe and calm when they are in their own space,” Coleman said. “Even when they start to think about going into the workspace, they start to feel panic. They start to have those anxious thoughts of ‘I can’t do this,’ the thoughts that say ‘danger, danger, danger.’”

While Coleman said that many of her clients were already in therapy before the pandemic for help with anxiety, a condition that the National Institute of Health says affects around 19% of U.S. adults every year, these fear reactions can happen to anyone.

“Our brains have a way of adjusting to the risks that we are exposed to frequently,” she said. “But this pandemic is a brand new risk.”

Coleman said that while the average person’s nervous systems are accustomed to the risks that come with driving a car, for example, many people still have trouble when it comes to coping with the idea of virus exposure in the workplace.

In what seems like a twist, Coleman said that many of her clients who continued working in-person throughout the shutdown are actually doing better than the ones still working from home and fearing having to go back.

“My clients who never went home now have seven months of experience of working in the public and not getting sick,” she said. “It’s easier for those people because they’ve developed a sense of confidence in the safety measures around them.”

What you can do to help yourself with stress in the workplace

Danielle Bergeron Ingram, the therapist in Vermont, said that if you notice certain changes in your behavior, it might be time to talk to a professional about your stress.

“Things like changes in sleep, if you’re isolating more than normal, or not finding pleasure in previously pleasurable activities,” she said.

Bergeron Ingram also recommends having a consistent, healthy routine whether you’re getting professional help or not. She said that moving your body daily, eating well and sleeping as well as you can help balance the sense of instability that arises from working during a pandemic.

“When people are feeling out of control that can turn into fear and can lead people down a rabbit hole,” she said.