Mental Health Professionals Advise Hybrid Approach When Returning to Work After Pandemic

It’s been more than a year of masking up, sheltering in place and working from home. We’ve been distant by design and now millions of workers are being called back. Susie Steimle reports. (4-8-21)

Video Transcript

- More than 75% of American executives plan to ask their employees to be back in the office by July. And the concept of returning is causing stress levels to spike in a way that mirrors the very beginning of the lockdown. On the road to recovery tonight, Susie Steimle has a look at how to navigate reentry.

SUSIE STEIMLE: It's been more than a year of masking up, sheltering in place, and working from home. We've avoided public transportation, hugs and handshakes. We've been distant by design. Now millions of workers are being called back.

DR. JONATHAN HOROWITZ: It's just eerie to see this city like this. I'm really looking forward to seeing some people back here.

SUSIE STEIMLE: Clinical psychologist Dr. Jonathan Horowitz just returned to his Market Street office for the first time since the start of the pandemic. He's the founder of the San Francisco stress and anxiety center.

DR. JONATHAN HOROWITZ: It's been a banner year for stress and anxiety.

SUSIE STEIMLE: He saw a boon in business because of Covid-19 and now he's seeing the stressors of returning to so-called normal show up in therapy sessions.

DR. JONATHAN HOROWITZ: It's like there's this arc of the pandemic where at the beginning, it was all how do we take it offline, how do we move home, how do we deal with that? And now it's how do we go in the other direction.

JENNIFER HYMES: I saw a definite increase in people getting back on medication, increasing medication, a lot of insomnia, a lot of panic attacks.

SUSIE STEIMLE: Jennifer Hymes is a licensed clinical social worker. She says this pandemic really exacerbated existing conditions and situations. Those who were lonely became more so, troubled relationships were tested further, and strapped parents straddled work and child care. People had to learn to draw lines. She's advising returning with a hybrid model to take things slowly.

JENNIFER HYMES: I'm going to go back twice a week, I'm going to see how I like it, and I've already had clients who have done that and for some, they love it. And for some it really does feel weird.

SUSIE STEIMLE: 75% of bosses expect to require their teams to physically come back to the office in some capacity by July. Most executives want people in the office at least three days a week whereas more than half of workers want to be remote at least three days a week.

SEAN LAMA: I do expect to be returning in some capacity pretty soon.

SUSIE STEIMLE: Sean Lama says, he's looking forward to getting back to work, with one exception.

SEAN LAMA: My main concern is public transportation to be honest because even before the pandemic, I actually would catch colds all the time. I think it's from the caltrain to be honest.

SUSIE STEIMLE: For others, triggers might be elevators, seeing crowded restaurants at lunchtime or maybe an empty chair at a desk nearby.

SEAN LAMA: People are having a range of experiences and they're going to be dealing with the emotional fallout of those experiences in different and sometimes unpredictable ways.

SUSIE STEIMLE: Doctors are also urging patients to hold on to some positive side effects of the pandemic like strict boundaries.

SEAN LAMA: When I log off from work I'm done, and it's made a huge difference. And it took kind of being forced into one extreme where there was no separation between work and home for me to realize how important there was to have a separation. - So if you're someone who's heading back to work soon, be compassionate with your coworkers. This trauma hit everyone differently. Many have simply survived and it might take time to remember how to go back to just living.

JENNIFER HYMES: I think this will stick with us forever. I don't think this is going away any time soon in terms of the scar that it's left on us psychologically.

SUSIE STEIMLE: And we know that it has certainly left a mark psychologically, and the Kaiser Family Foundation just released a survey confirming that 41% of adults right now say that they're experiencing some kind of anxiety or depression because of the pandemic. Pre pandemic, that number was 11%.

- Well, you know, Susie, I was thinking, during the pandemic, it's been really hard for people to get in to see a therapist but now it sounds like that's not going to let up either, people are still going to look for help.

SUSIE STEIMLE: Oh, yeah. And a lot of it's online, a lot of people are used to doing telehealth so they've been very busy but you know you never know what you're going to get when you see somebody. I think about this when I call for stories asking somebody how are you, you don't know what you're going to hear. So you kind of have to take things slowly with whoever you're talking to, you don't know what someone's going through.

- That's good advice take it slow, be easy on yourself.