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Dispatches from a Pandemic: ‘You shouldn’t feel pressured’: Many Americans dread returning to the office

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At first glance, Naomi Osaka, the No. 2 ranked female tennis player, appears calm, confident and focused as she bounces a tennis ball, tosses it up and sends it on to her opponent’s side of the court at well over 125 mph.

But the four-time Grand Slam champion’s power belies her vulnerability, the same vulnerability shared by millions of people in the U.S., and around the world, and one that caused her to shock fans by dropping out of the French Open.

Osaka struggles with depression and social anxiety that is heightened by media interviews she’s been required to partake in, she revealed in a statement she posted on Twitter
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earlier this week. 


‘If you’ve got a wound the first step is to treat the wound not to go out with the wound open — you need to take time to treat it.’


— Dr. John F Murray, a Florida-based sports psychologist

The anxiety and stress she experiences from media interviews that have been required in order to participate in tournaments is why she’s sitting out this year’s French Open, and instead is using the time for “self-care,” she said. 

In the coming months, many Americans may find themselves in a similar predicament as Osaka. 

As vaccination rates continue to climb in the U.S. and states abandon pandemic restrictions, more companies including Apple
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and JPMorgan Chase & Co.
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are requiring employees to work in person some days a week.

Unlike Osaka, the highest paid female athlete in the world, many workers who struggle with anxiety and depression cannot afford to take a self-care respite from work.

For its part, JPMorgan Chase said its buildings and branches in the U.S. have remained open throughout the pandemic, “and have safely operated for our essential employees.”

It said it will maintain a 50% occupancy cap, at least until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revises its social distancing guidelines. JPMorgan Chase recommends employees start the discussion of their return with their manager.

(Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

Naomi Osaka, pictured, dropped out of the French Open due to mental-health challenges.

Julian Finney/Getty Images

MarketWatch spoke with three experts: Amy Cooper Hakim Ph.D., Dr. John F Murray and Dr. Rudy Nydegger, to better understand how Americans can manage anxiety and mental-health challenges in their workplace.

Cooper Hakim is the founder of a Florida-based management consulting firm The Cooper Strategic Group and co-author of “Working With Difficult People”

Murray is a Florida-based sports psychologist who has worked with a range of high-profile athletes including former NBA star Tracy McGrady and top-ranking tennis players. He also provides services to non-athletes through his private practice.

Nydegger is a clinical psychologist who has written several books on management and workplace psychology. He also serves as the chief of the division of psychology at Ellis Hospital in Schenectady, N.Y.

This conversation was edited for style and space:

MarketWatch: Even if fully vaccinated, many Americans aren’t ready to go back to riding public transportation, meeting with clients in person and working out of an office for an entire workday. How should they mentally prepare for this in advance so that it’s not overwhelming?

John F Murray: If you’ve got a wound the first step is to treat the wound not to go out with the wound open — you need to take time to treat it. But what gets people better, in the long run, is exposure to that which is causing them anxiety. 


‘It’s okay for me to not be comfortable here. If I don’t feel safe or if I don’t feel comfortable then I’m going to turn around.’


— Amy Cooper Hakim, founder of The Cooper Strategic Group, on advice that she gives clients

Amy Cooper Hakim: If riding the subway is something you’re concerned about then perhaps go during a time of day where it’s not as busy or on a weekend just to get a feel for what it’s like to ride somewhere, and arrive and say ‘Oh hey, I’m okay.’

But give yourself permission to say, ‘It’s okay for me to not be comfortable here. If I don’t feel safe or if I don’t feel comfortable then I’m going to turn around.’

MarketWatch: At what point should employees consider quitting a job if they, similar to Osaka, find themselves feeling overly anxious about doing what is required — in this case, going back to work in person?

Amy Cooper Hakim: You shouldn’t feel pressured to move back into society sooner than you’re ready. At the same time, do your very best to remember the importance of human interaction.


‘You could start working earlier in the morning if you found that working early gave you a better work product. ‘

At the end of the day, we have to get back to normal. But if there was something that worked well for you don’t feel embarrassed or shy about asking about working remotely. You could start working earlier in the morning if you found that working early gave you a better work product. 

Rudy Nydegger: A lot of times, employers are afraid of being taken advantage of so they’re going to state a firmer position than they actually believe in. But if that’s threatening enough to you that you really don’t want to work there anymore, well then, look for another job.

But my initial approach would be to try to get back and see how it feels. It may be that you will get back, and gain some credibility and be able to go to your boss and say, ‘This is stressful. I love my job and I really like my coworkers, but it just seems like a lot. Is there any way that I could work from home one day a week?’


‘A lot of times, employers are afraid of being taken advantage of so they’re going to state a firmer position than they actually believe in.’


— Dr. Rudy Nydegger, a clinical psychologist

When employers really face up to the reality that turnover is expensive — every time you turn a position over you lose productivity — employees may have a chance of actually being able to work with management and find better solutions.

MarketWatch: People, like stock markets, don’t like uncertainty. Some people have not been told yet when or if they will be expected to return to the office. They are contemplating whether they should renew their lease, or buy work apparel. 

Rudy Nydegger: There are little things that you can do to prepare. There’s nothing wrong with occasionally — and I don’t mean being a pest — checking with management, and saying, ‘Just wondering if you folks were coming up with any guidelines that we need to be thinking about prior to coming back?’

For a lot of folks, the uncertainty is more stressful than the idea that they have to go back. Most people are going to look at the worst-case scenario and try to prepare for that, when in fact the worst case scenario usually is not the most obvious solution.

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