This story is published in partnership with Thrive Global, a WeWork member in New York City.
There is no playbook for reentering the workplace after a global pandemic. This is a first for all of us. But there are science-backed ways to manage your stress, communicate more effectively with others, and keep up productivity during this unprecedented time.
This guide features 10 microsteps—small actions that can significantly improve your life—to help everyone navigate some of the issues we’ll be facing in the new normal of the workplace.
Manage stress and anxiety
As we return to work, many of us may be coping with stressors we’ve never experienced before: Once-mundane routines like commuting or riding in an elevator may suddenly be stressful, and we’ll need to (again) rebalance work and family life. A Thrive Sciences study based on a representative sample of 1,000 American adults found that 82 percent of Americans say that the pandemic has had a greater negative impact on their stress than any other event in their history.
We can’t eliminate stress from our lives, but we can learn to manage it. Research from Stanford’s Precision Mental Health and Wellness Center shows that when we ignore our signs of overstress and allow stress to become cumulative and overwhelming, it can lead to mental health challenges such as depression and anxiety. But when we get to know the sources of our stress, how we respond, and what helps us recharge, we’re much better able to prevent these concerns.
1. Write down your top worry associated with returning to work
One way to take the reins back is to simply name your anxieties. Clinical researchers call this the “name it to tame it” strategy because it actually slows down the brain’s negative response and reduces stress. Using neuroimaging techniques, UCLA researchers were able to show that verbalizing our emotions actually makes anger, sadness, and pain less intense.
Labeling an emotion, or putting one’s feelings into words, can help regulate those feelings, allowing them to inform you rather than overwhelm you. Once you’ve articulated an emotion for yourself, either by writing it down or saying it out loud, you can make a plan to address the worry. You might even realize that the concern is less overwhelming than it seemed before you put a name to it.
2. Choose a calming activity to consistently practice during your commute
Commuting is a part of the day that can either be a source of stress or an opportunity to find calm. If you’re taking public transportation, listen to a favorite playlist. When walking outside, focus on your breath, or take a moment to look around you and appreciate the sights and sounds.
A study in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine shows that adding moments of leisure to your day can lower your brain’s and your body’s response to stress, decreasing heart rate and levels of the “stress hormone” cortisol. They can also improve your mood, sense of fulfillment, and overall well-being, both in the immediate and in the long term.
3. Take a few minutes to identify your top stress signals that tell you your mental battery is running low
Stress is the body’s natural response to a threat. The human fight-or-flight mechanism has served us well for hundreds of thousands of years. The problem is chronic stress, which occurs when acute stressors don’t go away, keeping us stuck in that fight-or-flight mode even when there’s no actual threat. This kind of perpetual stress can have long-term consequences for our mental and physical health, which is why it’s essential to become attuned to our brain’s need for a pause and reset.
Unfortunately, many of us are so accustomed to this heightened state of stress that we might not recognize the signals at all. Common signals to watch out for include rapid heart rate, rumination, difficulty thinking clearly, and more frequent social conflicts. Noticing when you’re overstressed will help you determine when you need a “microbreak” throughout your day.
Communicate with compassion to boost connection and motivation
Each of us has faced unique challenges during the pandemic that will inform our experience when we return to the office. We may be grieving for lost loved ones, reeling from financial hurdles, navigating around canceled life events, coping with caregiver anxiety, or managing anxiety about contracting the virus as the country reopens.
Given all of the ongoing stressors, there’s never been a greater need in the workplace to communicate and lead with compassion. Think of compassion as what happens when empathy meets action. Research shows that helping others benefits both the person receiving support and the helper: Practicing compassion can decrease symptoms of depression and improve emotional well-being, and even boost our physical health. When we take action to support our colleagues, we’ll all feel more connected and motivated every day.
4. Swap “How are you?” for a deeper question
The next time you connect with a colleague, asking questions like, “What’s on your mind?” or “What challenges are you facing now?” can give you the chance to learn about and honor their experiences. These types of questions also spur learning, idea exchange, and help build rapport and trust. A team of Harvard researchers found that the simple act of asking questions has significant benefits for both you and your colleagues. People who ask more questions tend to be better liked by the people they’re conversing with. They are also perceived as more responsive, validating, and caring.
Asking questions is also a virtuous cycle: By asking questions, we improve our emotional intelligence. The more we listen, the more we learn and the better we become at asking questions.
5. If you’re wearing a face mask, communicate verbally more than you normally would
If you’re grateful, disappointed, or concerned, say it. Stating your feelings clearly will help your coworkers know where they stand. Wearing a mask makes it challenging for others to read your expression and interpret your emotional state. Our ability to sense others’ feelings is due to mirror neurons in our brain, which help us experience what the other person is feeling. When half our face is covered, that’s infinitely more difficult to do.
For example, one BMC Family Practice study of doctors showed that wearing masks can lower patients’ perceptions of empathy, and poses challenges to building patient-doctor relationships.
Rather than relying on showing emotions, try to communicate them. And before reading into what other people are thinking or feeling, ask more questions.
6. When you’re leading a meeting, start with addressing the person on the videoconference or phone
This gesture will help any still-remote employees feel like they belong and are part of the team when they can’t be there in person. A study in Psychological Science found that the pain of being left out follows the same neural and physiological patterns as physical pain. Researchers call this strong negative response to exclusion a “neural alarm system” and link it to evolutionary adaptive tendencies to protect against social isolation.
Team members who feel excluded are less motivated; in fact, even a single incident of exclusion can lead to an immediate decline in performance. On the flip side, studies show that belonging is good for business. Employees who feel a strong sense of belonging tend to perform better and are up to 50 percent less likely to quit.
7. Before you get into bed, escort your devices out of the bedroom
You may be thinking, “What does this tip have to do with compassion?” But it’s actually linked in two impactful ways. For one thing, the regions of the brain responsible for empathy are impaired by sleep loss—and we know that scrolling on our devices all night can keep us from getting the sleep we need. Not only does sleep loss have a negative effect on your ability to process emotional information, the European Sleep Research Society found that it also impacts our ability to pick up on the emotions of others.
Our phones are also the repositories of our anxieties and fears, especially in times of crisis and constant news updates. With constant pings, news updates, and notifications, our phones keep us on high alert. According to the Cleveland Clinic, these alerting properties of smartphones delay REM sleep, which is critical for learning and storing new memories. And this turns into a vicious cycle: Poor sleep in turn leads to higher levels of anxiety. Disconnecting will help you sleep better, recharge, and be your most compassionate self.
One silver lining of the pandemic is that it has forced us to acknowledge that we must care for our well-being in order to unlock our full potential. During the crisis, we experienced increased stress due to boundary-less work and constant distractions. (There’s been a 300 percent increase in online searches for “How to get your brain to focus” since February!)
We realized that our family lives simply couldn’t remain hidden from our professional lives. Thrive Sciences found that 89 percent of employees experienced challenges with balancing work and home/life responsibilities. And we saw how being in a constant state of heightened stress can derail our physical health and immunity.
Now we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make caring for our mental and physical well-being a nonnegotiable part of productivity and success. We can finally stop the delusion that burnout is the price we must pay for success.
8. Before your return to the office, make a list of what you’ve learned about how you work best and share that with your team
Whether it’s a specific way of structuring your work, or taking short recharge breaks during the day, identify what you’d like to take forward with you back to the office.
We process around 11 billion bits of information per second. Our brain collects what we see, hear, and experience and turns those inputs into models that help us make sense of new experiences and process new information. These mental models are like movie scripts or photographs of how something works in the world. Bringing awareness to those models helps us uncover how we think and what we need to operate at our best.
For example, we may have mental models for what happens at a restaurant (we order food, eat it, and pay the check) or at a bank (we insert a card in an ATM, push buttons, take out cash, and put it in our wallet). We also have mental models for what productive work looks like—going to an office at a specific time, sitting at a desk, going to meetings, commuting home—and these have been largely disrupted by the pandemic. As we uncover new ways to work, we can reshape those mental models to accommodate our changing needs and incorporate new lessons we’ve learned on how we work most productively.
In addition, research shows that creating shared mental models with other people can lead to improved communication and decision-making and increased performance. So identify the mental models you have developed—and share them with your team!
9. In your next one-on-one, share one well-being goal with your manager, and let them know how they can support you
This might be protected time for focused work during the day, a quick workout during your lunch break, or flexibility in your start time so that you can avoid a busy train. While we might be returning to the office, we are still experiencing significant physical and emotional impacts of the pandemic. So carving out time for well-being is essential. Sharing your well-being goals and priorities with your manager and colleagues fosters accountability and encouragement.
Research also shows that it is up to you to initiate a conversation about these goals. In a 2019 study, 90 percent of employees reported that they perform better when their company supports their emotional well-being. Yet the same study showed that only 41 percent of managers routinely ask about emotional well-being during one-on-one meetings. Being compassionately direct about your needs will provide your manager with the knowledge they need to ensure you’re able to be at your best.
10. Each morning, write down the top three things you want to accomplish that day
In returning to work, relentless prioritization will be more critical than ever. By creating a specific list of priorities every day, you are focusing your intentions and creating a specific plan that is more likely to lead to follow-through, effort, and performance. Writing a list of priorities also helps fight distractions from other lurking “to do” items that you are not planning to complete that day. Unfulfilled goals weigh down the mind. This is explained by something called the Zeigarnik effect: People remember unfinished or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks because our brains tend to focus more on the tasks that are incomplete.
Researchers at Florida State University found that committing to a specific plan toward accomplishing a goal not only makes it easier to accomplish that goal, but also frees up our brain to focus on other things in the meantime. By taking a moment to make an intentional decision about what you will not complete that day, you help your brain focus on the tasks that you are choosing to prioritize. So give yourself structure and clarity by focusing on three objectives every day—and when they’re done, declare an end to your workday, knowing you’ll come back tomorrow recharged.
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and may not necessarily represent the views of WeWork.
Founded and led by Arianna Huffington, Thrive Global is a behavior change technology company helping individuals, companies, and communities improve their well-being and performance. Thrive Global is headquartered in New York and launched in the fall of 2016. For more information, visit thriveglobal.com.