Handling the stress of returning to work

UCLA psychologist Kate Wolitzky-Taylor, PhD, reviews seven techniques to address various issues and stressors we may face as we return to work

With more businesses reopening, millions of Americans are now feeling additional stress as they go back to work while the COVID-19 pandemic continues across the United States.

Understandably, they are worried: “Who’s going to watch my kids since schools are still closed?” “How can I maintain social distance and practice safe hygiene at work?” “How am I going to handle meetings with coworkers and others?”

In this segment of the COVID-19 Care Package, we share seven strategies and techniques you can apply to your own situation, whether you are returning to work, working from home, or, as an essential worker, continuing to work outside the home during the pandemic.

It’s our hope that these skills will bring you moments of calm, joy and balance during this incredibly stressful time.

Tip #1: Find calmness through breathing

We can expect that many of us will experience anxiety as we return to work. How this affects us may vary: tension, inability to focus on tasks, or feeling panic and needing to escape for fresh air. These sensations are to be expected. Fortunately there are some tools and skills that we can use to manage anxiety in those moments.

First, it’s helpful to understand what is happening in our bodies when we are stressed or anxious. Our nervous system gets overactivated, and when that happens our heart rate increases, we sweat more, and we start to breathe faster. Luckily for us, this process also works in reverse—by simply slowing our breathing, we can bring our nervous system back to normal.

Slowing down our breathing won’t make our problems go away. But it should help bring down the sensations of anxiety so that we feel calmer, more centered, and able to focus and make reasoned decisions.

Practicing slower breathing

  1. Find a place to lay down, sit or stand still.
  2. If you can do so discreetly, put one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest.
  3. Take normal sized breaths, not deep breaths. Notice how your belly and chest are moving with these normal breaths.
  4. Adjust your breathing so that your belly rises and falls like you are filling up a balloon and then deflating it, while your chest remains still.
  5. Close your eyes and breathe in and out through your nose. On the inhale think “Inhale, 2, 3” and then on the exhale think “Relax, 2, 3.”
  6. Focus your attention on the sensation of breathing and on your counting. If your attention wanders to other things that do not need immediate attention, simply notice that your attention is drifting and focus back on your breathing and counting.
  7. If in a non-stressful situation, repeat this for 5 minutes with your eyes closed. If you are experiencing a great deal of stress or anxiety, continue to breathe and count until you feel a bit calmer.

With practice, you will be able to use this breathing skill more effortlessly and effectively, which is especially helpful when it comes time to use it in a high stress situation. Using this skill during breaks may help you return to work calmer and with a clearer head.

On your own: Incorporate the slow breathing practice into your day.

Tip #2: Make time in your life for rest and relaxation

Our bodies and brains will require rest and relaxation to function as we face the increased stress of returning to work. While most people probably recognize this truth, many of us still struggle to build in enough time to regularly and effectively relax.

Think about how you are using your downtime. Are you really giving yourself a break or are you spending that time checking email, searching for news stories, mindlessly scrolling through social media or calling a friend or family member who brings on more stress?

We encourage you take the following steps for relaxation:

  1. “Unplug” from things that tend to cause stress like the news, work projects and our own worried thoughts.
  2. Engage in an activity that brings a sense calm, peace or joy.
  3. Bring focus to that activity and avoid the temptation to multitask.
  4. Dedicate enough time for the body and mind to calm.

The activities we choose make a difference. For example, taking 30 minutes to sit outdoors on a sunny day to read a good book or a favorite magazine can be relaxing in comparison to spending 30 minutes hunched over a computer reading dire news about the economy. Calling a close friend to talk about the latest episode of a TV show can be fun and relaxing, as compared to calling a relative who likes to debate politics.

On your own: Take a moment and come up with a list of things you can do to relax and bring joy and feel free to include other housemates in those plans.

Tip #3: Manage worrying about work after work hours

For many of us, it can be hard to stop thinking about work and “replaying” the events of the day. Questions that might arise include: “Why was my manager so hard on me?” or “Could I have been infected by that customer who came in without a mask?” or “Did I do everything I could today to keep from getting infected?”

Asking ourselves questions like these can sometimes help us figure out how to address work-related issues. But, more often than not, these questions pull us into a repetitive, negative cycle that dampens our mood and distracts us from what’s important.

One way to stop this cycle of worry is to focus on the present moment through mindfulness practice, which was reviewed during the “Stopping the Worry Cycle” segment of the COVID-19 Care Package.

Mindfulness requires practice and once you have some fluency with this skill, you may use it in several situations. Scientific research has shown that it can help us cope with many kinds of negative emotions.

It’s important to note that mindfulness does not always have to be an intentional practice. Simply getting into the flow of activities that hold our attention can make us more mindful of our present situation. Some activities that help people get “in the flow” are exercise, hobbies, watching or reading something interesting, or even doing household chores that require attention.

On your own: Practice mindfulness or another activity that enables you to focus on the present.

Tip #4: Practice self-compassion

Many of us who are returning to the workplace while the COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing are feeling pulled in multiple directions. It may feel like we aren’t as focused or effective as before. A key strategy to use when feeling like you can’t juggle everything effectively is to take occasional breaks to practice self-compassion—being kind to yourself—as developed by Kristin Neff, PhD from the University of Texas at Austin. This practice was covered in the “Stretched too Thin” segment of the COVID-19 Care Package.

On your own: Review and incorporate the self-compassion steps

Tip #5: Deal with problems that will arise from returning to work

Returning to work during the pandemic will bring several new issues that we will need to solve. Some issues may be harder to deal with than others, but all of them could increase our stress. Some possible issues include figuring out how to get work clothes dry-cleaned, finding someone to watch your children, figuring out how to get a broken household item fixed, or even following all the new steps at work because of COVID-19 (e.g., wiping down the counters every five minutes).

When specific problems are increasing our stress, we can use the problem-solving framework created by Raphael Rose, PhD and referenced in the “Stopping the Worry Cycle” segment of the COVID-19 Care Package. This framework is useful for problems that are within your control to solve—it will help you consider several ways to solve your problem and guide you to pick the solution that will best solve your problem and reduce your stress.

On your own: Use the Problem-Solving Worksheet

Tip #6: Reconnect with your values

When we’re stressed, it’s easy to forget why we are working so hard. If you feel unmotivated, frustrated or even angry that your work is taking you away from so many other important things going on in your life, it can help to get in touch with your values.

As covered in the “Stretched too Thin” segment of the COVID-19 Care Package, values are the things we find meaningful in life. They are different from goals, which are specific tasks we want to accomplish or milestones we want to achieve. Showing up to work every day until you get your next paycheck is a goal. But why are you showing up?

In other words, what are the values underlying why you go to work? Maybe you want to earn enough to take care of your family. Maybe you need benefits like health insurance and a retirement plan. Maybe you work because you get joy or a sense of accomplishment from your job or your coworkers. Whatever your reason, being engaged in your job can be good for your mental health especially if it is connected to an important personal value.

If you find yourself feeling resentful or wondering why you bother going to work or doing certain activities, that’s a sign that it might be helpful to conduct a values assessment. Getting in touch with our values can help improve our emotional health in two ways. First, it can help us connect a sense of purpose with our day-to-day tasks. Second, it can remind us of important things in our life that might need more attention.

On your own: Assess your values and confirm that your values are being prioritized.

Tip #7: Know your rights as a worker

Every workplace in the U.S. is trying to adapt to the challenges posed by the pandemic. Because things are changing so quickly, even the most well-intended managers and administrators may not anticipate everything that their workers need.

As a result, it’s very important that workers—whether they are at a work site or at home—learn their rights and assert themselves when their needs are not being met. For example, it is essential to know the options for family and sick leave in case you or a family member contract the virus. It’s also important to know your workplace rights regarding the CDC safety guidelines. Your concerns might be: “Can I move my desk if it is too close to others?” “What do I do if my coworkers are not following company rules about wearing masks and maintaining social distance?”

One of the best ways to learn your rights is to become familiar with your company’s human resources (HR) department. Most large companies have HR departments responsible for employee issues such as time off/leaves, worker safety and workplace conflict. If you don’t know if you have an HR department or how to contact them, ask your manager. You may also wish to find online resources.

Selection of online resources regarding workers’ rights

In addition to knowing your rights, you also need to be able to ask for what you need. Some people may have trouble asking for what they need if they are naturally shy or if they aren’t confident their supervisors will understand their needs. Others might feel it’s hopeless to ask. All of these are completely understandable reasons to struggle with asserting our needs. That said, it’s important to be able to ask for help when it’s needed, especially now when worker health and emotional well-being can be at risk.

If you need help communicating your needs clearly and effectively, we recommend using the DEAR MAN strategy developed by Marsha Linehan, PhD, ABPP. This strategy was described in the “Finding Calm when Feeling Overwhelmed” segment of the COVID-19 Care Package.

On your own: Review and use the DEAR MAN strategy to help organize your thoughts and approach before raising issues of concern.

Use one or more of the strategies

Many of us are going to feel more stress as businesses and services begin to reopen across the country and we start to return to work. We hope these skills will help you stay emotionally healthy and get your needs met during this challenging time.

Downloadable resources to use on your own

Information Sheet:

Pre-Work List:

How-to Guides:

Fillable Activity: