“I’m so apprehensive about going back to the office. It feels like I’ve just recently adapted to working remotely.” Michael sighed and shook his head. He’s the chief operations officer at a growing startup, and also a client of mine. “What worries me the most is the emotional state of my team. They’re all worried and anxious, which is starting to affect me personally. How do I get a handle on re-entry stress?”
Michael’s concerns are common among the leaders I coach who tend to be sensitive, empathetic individuals. Employees are understandably fearful about returning to the office, as more and more companies share their plans for going back to working in person. Safety and health are now top of mind for many people (Will the mask policy be followed? How do we share space without getting each other sick?) And the thought of being surrounded by other people all day is anxiety-provoking after spending so much time working at home. (“None of my work pants even fit anymore,” a client told me. Someone else asked how to relearn small talk.)
Various types of anxiety, like re-entry stress, often ripple beyond the person experiencing it. Emotional contagion is a real psychological phenomenon, and you can “catch” the emotions of others just like catching a cold. Humans naturally emulate the body language, facial expressions, and behavior of the people they spend the most time with, and it’s not a conscious process.
This is just as true in the workplace as outside it. You’ve probably seen and experienced emotional contagion in the past. One person’s bad day can tug everyone’s energy down during a meeting, and hearing about a friend’s frantic panic buying in the early days of the pandemic may have triggered some purchases of your own.
All team leaders need to be mindful of the emotional contagion when returning to the office because a leader who absorbs the feelings of their direct reports is in danger of feeding their own re-entry stress and creating a vicious cycle of negative feelings. And emotional contagion puts your own well-being at risk. Your mood can be affected by the moods of the people around you.
This is particularly true for sensitive strivers, who make up about 20% of the population. Sensitive strivers is my term for leaders whose mental circuitry is more active in the parts of the brain that create empathy (known as mirror neurons.) So these individuals are more affected by the behavior and feelings of other people.
How can you protect yourself from the re-entry stress of the people around you? Here’s your cheat sheet to avoid absorbing your team’s feelings while retaining your empathy for their issues and their needs.
6 Leadership Tactics to Help with Re-Entry Stress
Check your emotional pulse.
The team leader can be the most influential source of emotional contagion. You’re like a mood inductor: your co-workers stay attuned to you because of your authority and power. If you bring your anxiety and stress into interactions with your team, they’ll sense it and “catch” your low mood.
So check in on your emotional state as you go through your day and be mindful of the feelings you bring to the table when interacting with your team. Your emotions and your tone will carry over online as well as in person.
My coaching clients find it helpful to use simple mood trackers to monitor their emotional shifts. Other options include scheduling calendar reminders to evaluate the state of your feelings, or changing the background on your phone to show a simple emotional check-in question like, “How do I feel right now?”
Visualize your boundaries.
If one of your direct reports seems worried about going back to the office, you may find yourself internalizing their anxieties and taking their concerns personally as a reflection on your leadership. Their apprehensions may make you feel uneasy. You could find yourself thinking, “Should I get more involved? I don’t want them to feel like I don’t advocate for them.”
For sensitive strivers, interactions like this may leave an emotional hangover that lasts for hours or days. Visualization can be an effective way to protect yourself from the emotions of those around them. Try imagining a pane of glass between yourself and someone else that protects you from the effects of their reactions. Another popular visualization is to energetically “zip yourself up.” Put your hand on your solar plexus, then move your hand to the top of your head as if you were zipping up an invisible jacket.
Opt for empathy instead of internalization.
Don’t indulge in fear-based thinking when you’re leading your team. Strike a balance between holding space for the concerns of your team members while preventing them from descending into complaining or making each other anxious. Let your empathy take the lead. Take advantage of moments like these to move towards validation and compassion. Use questions to guide your directs to solve problems and focus on solutions. For example:
- It’s reasonable to be worried about returning to the office. Let’s brainstorm strategies to make that transition as easy for you as possible.
- I’ve heard that you have concerns about the hybrid schedule we’re adopting. What changes are you thinking of making with regards to the way you prioritize your workload?
- I agree that it’s stressful to navigate all the uncertainties created by the pandemic. As your manager, what can I do to support you?
The upside of emotional contagion is that you can also transfer positive emotions. Take advantage of the fact that human nervous systems mimic each other by leveraging co-regulation. That’s the term for deliberately soothing or calming yourself, which will prompt the folks around you to do the same thing.
While interacting with someone who seems anxious, take deep, slow breaths from your diaphragm. Lower the volume of your voice and the rate of your speech (I call this my “therapist voice.”) Model tension-free body language by letting your hips sink into your seat and rolling your shoulders. You’ll feel a shift in your mood when you try this, and your team members will also relax.
Actively boost resilience.
Psychology studies have demonstrated that it takes five positive interactions to outweigh a single negative interaction. This means you can deliberately cultivate an upbeat atmosphere through compliments, praise, and recognition.
Start each team meeting by asking each member to share a recent win. In one-on-ones with staff, ask them to share the ways they’re leveling up and growing in their roles. Some companies start “shine” channels in their messaging platforms, so workers can spotlight successes and congratulate each other on their victories.
By fostering an emotional culture of support and encouragement, you can counteract the effects of any negative contagion.
Use rituals to compartmentalize work time.
Deliberate decompression after work can help you leave a bad day at the office behind at the end of the workday. Some of my clients create their own transition rituals to make a symbolic shift from work time into personal time. This could consist of contemplating your proudest achievements for the day or the most important things you’ve learned. If you’re commuting, you could listen to an audiobook or a podcast that has nothing to do with work on your way home.
Clients who work from home sometimes like to change clothes as a way of marking the end of their workdays. Remind yourself that the strongest and most emotionally resilient leaders prioritize self-care. Their downtime isn’t “being lazy:” it’s a deliberate, non-negotiable investment in their career and their performance on the job.
Re-entry stress will be endemic in the coming months. By using these tactics, you combat emotional contagion, and keep yourself and your team buoyant in the face of a challenging transition.