Anxiety About Hybrid Work is Real — Organizations Must Acknowledge It as Part of Their Mental Health Inclusion Efforts

Dr. Komal Bhasin presenting a webinar


by Dr. Komal Bhasin, bci’s Senior DEI Consultant and Mental Health Expert-in-Residence

The past year and a half has been an incredibly difficult time for many of us when it comes to mental health. From the abrupt changes brought on by the pandemic to experiences with burnout, grief and loss related to racism and other social inequities, fear about COVID-19 and variants (plus anxiety about hybrid work), there’s been so much stress and uncertainty. It’s no wonder that we’re collectively reeling!

And now we have another big change on the horizon as we look toward returning to in-person or hybrid work environments. Not surprisingly, leaders and their teams are, yet again, facing heightened worry, stress and anxiety.

While we know that the majority of employees want to work in a hybrid way — splitting their time between working remotely and in-person — there’s still heightened fear and stress about working in the hybrid work environment. Given this, it’s so important that leaders of organizations acknowledge and validate these feelings that their teams are having.

As a leader or team member, if you’re wondering how to address the heightened emotions about hybrid work, there are a few things we’d like to share with you.

First, while we often think of anxiety as a bad thing, it’s a normal response that humans have when facing a threat. For example, if a bear was in front of you, it would be helpful to have your threat responses kick into high gear and prompt you to take positive action to save yourself.

However, when your body senses a threat — whether real or perceived — but there isn’t a helpful action you can take to resolve that threat, those negative thoughts, beliefs and feelings stay trapped within and can cause anxiety. Anxiety usually relates to things that might occur in the future, that are unpredictable and that we perceive a lack of control over.

In the context of returning to in-person working, because we haven’t been around each other for a long time and haven’t used our social skills as much, we might not be as clear about what people expect from us, and we might not even remember our own behavioral preferences in social settings. These uncertain and negative thoughts, feelings and beliefs can be experienced as anxiety.

Furthermore, many of us have experienced significant losses since last seeing our colleagues in person, whether this involved losing loved ones; financial loss; job loss; missing out on weddings, graduations, first dates and new job opportunities and more. This loss and the grief connected to it can very understandably make us anxious. On top of this all, many professionals from equity-seeking backgrounds have valid concerns relating to biases that may become heightened during the return to in-person working.

So what can organizations do when dealing with a workforce that feels pummeled by the past year and half, are experiencing diminished mental health and burnout related to working longer hours and are seriously thinking about whether to stay or leave their jobs?

The answer is for leaders and individuals to focus on taking care of themselves and of each other. From a leadership perspective this includes being radically transparent about hybrid work policies, timelines and even your perspective on expectations in this new environment, easing your team in with flexibility and understanding, checking in regularly on both the team and individual levels and creating opportunities for social inclusion.

From an individual standpoint, this means developing personal strategies for managing your worries and concerns, identifying what may be triggering your anxieties related to returning to in-person work and proactively taking time to develop self-care and wellness practices.

The new challenges facing organizations in the hybrid workplace and going forward will be very different to those we have faced at other stages of this pandemic journey. When it comes to mental health inclusion in this moment, I can’t highlight enough the importance of being able to process and share the very real concerns and feelings we’re all having at work and with our colleagues in a meaningful way.

If you’re interested in learning more about bci’s programming around mental health inclusion and inclusive hybrid workplaces, please feel free to reach out to us.


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