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Workplace Weary: Are You Emotionally Out of Shape?

How to manage your emotional responses when you return to the office.

Key points

  • Returning to the workplace may be more emotionally challenging than anticipated.
  • We are all wired to react emotionally. You may have to relearn how to keep your responses in check.
  • Nonverbal cues are important, learned, and vary widely. You may be out of practice reading colleagues and vice versa.
  • Take it slow and give yourself time. Eventually you will rebuild your emotional fortitude.
Source: Fauxel/Pexels

You may be surprised what you’ve forgotten.

We all went through an extraordinary time together – unprecedented in our living memory. The sudden and extreme disruption in our lives changed our normal behaviors, and for some of us, it has been close to two years.

That’s long enough to erode our learned professional interactions. It’s easy to forget that most behavior is learned – including working with others. Some of that is schoolyard stuff: sharing, being polite, waiting your turn. Some of that is more grown-up: navigating the politics of an office environment, managing a difficult team member, or dealing with a temperamental boss.

Our emotions are always on.

The pandemic meant two things happened: one, we lost our daily conditioning of those workplace behaviors, and two, so did everyone else. Just like a physical workout, the brain needs to keep practicing certain mental exercises, or it begins to lose its accuracy and speed. When we say someone is being “emotional,” that can be misleading: everyone is emotional, and it’s our brain's first reaction to a situation.

The “fight or flight” response to a situation certainly isn’t a pragmatic process – I’m going to punch you in the face or run away – is the definition of an emotional reaction. We learn over time to fight that response – wait for it to pass – and allow for a more measured solution. The consequences of acting emotionally are learned over time and then reinforced when we interact with colleagues regularly. When we’re detached from those situations for an extended period, the muscle memory fades.

You may be a novice at the nonverbal.

Related, don’t forget your ability to read nonverbal cues has also declined. Many of us spent months only seeing strangers’ eyes and foreheads due to mask mandates. Even if we lived somewhere with less restrictive policies, we had fewer interactions with a large variety of people as our social circles shrunk. Again, our brains learned over time that lips pressed tightly together were a warning sign, or nostrils flared indicated anger.

It might seem second nature to read your fellow team members when you’re working together day in and day out. But take those experiences away, and you get rusty. Emotional responses vary widely by person – a study published by the American Psychological Association in 2018 found that our physical reactions vary widely, and no one nonverbal marker indicates the same emotion. So, if you haven’t seen your boss in months, you may have forgotten her particular body language – does that scowl means she’s angry or just thinking hard?

You’re out of shape mentally. And so are they.

But we haven’t been working in offices with others – and neither have our colleagues. We are all returning to work, essentially out of shape. Our emotional response is hard-wired, so the first time someone leaves their dirty coffee cup in the office canteen, you may find yourself particularly incensed. You’re not wrong, exactly; you’re just out of practice. Breathe, wait, remember your emotional response is faster but not wiser.

And remember that your colleagues are also out of practice – so if you’re the one who leaves the dirty coffee cup, you might get a stronger retort than you did in 2019. We are all tired, all distracted, and all out of practice.

We’ve changed, we’re tired, and that’s ok.

It's also worth noting that we’re not the same people we were before. Since the onset of the pandemic in early 2020, we’ve not only gone through the uncertainty and stress of a major public health crisis. The U.S. has changed its presidents, is in a state of rapid inflation, and witnessing a violent invasion of Ukraine. We’re also on our devices more than ever because we have become so reliant on digital access to information, groceries, and loved ones (not necessarily in that order). One study showed that 90 percent of respondents felt the internet had become essential during the pandemic – but 40 percent also said they were tired.

It's natural – and healthy – to look forward to the things you’ve missed about being in the office – having colleagues around you to bounce ideas off of, that well-stocked pantry of snacks, even the physical space of your desk or office chair. But you might have “edited” out the guy who talks too loudly and the endless office gossip. So, it’s natural to feel disappointed when full reality comes back.

But it’s not all doom and gloom! While we’re returning to the office out of shape, it doesn’t mean we’re unable to rebuild the emotional fortitude we had before. Although we might be a bit blindsided by the realities of the workplace we’d forgotten, we’ll also be delighted and nurtured by the benefits of in-person socializing.

Returning to the office after months away is not unlike returning to the gym. The first few times will leave you sore and a bit frustrated. Take it slow and realize you can’t handle as much emotionally as you could before. Eventually, you build those muscles back and feel strong and capable again.