Everyone Is Not OK, but Back at Work Anyway
By Emma Goldberg
It’s exceptionally difficult to get someone to crack a smile, let alone laugh, in a corporate event hosted on Zoom, but comedian Dani Klein Modisett finds ways. One game she likes to play during her laughter workshops involves asking participants to each name five items in a category — for example, things in their refrigerator — as fast as they can, after which everyone else chants: “Those are five things!” Eventually people loosen up. They start giggling. (Maybe you had to be there.)
But in recent months she has noticed attendees logging in to the sessions more tense than ever. Some arrive looking for levity, but also processing tragedy.
“I’m glad I showed up,” one participant said. “But my brother-in-law just died.”
People are going into performance reviews, brainstorming sessions and the office with all kinds of grief, swinging between the banal and the crushing. Small problems feel large. Large problems feel colossal. And with mental health care hard to obtain and afford, workers are trying to fill the gaps.
“There’s this sense of ‘I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing this,’” said Klein Modisett, whose organization, Laughter on Call, has run over 350 events since its founding three years ago. “We want to hold out the possibility we can laugh, but it’s all becoming too much.”
Even the most scripted Hollywood event went sideways, its typical polish replaced with raw emotion: a slap from one of the film industry’s biggest stars.
“We’re all feeling our way around being together when we don’t know what each other’s state of well-being is,” said Chantalle Couba, 46, a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant in North Carolina. “You go to a three-day off-site — or to the Oscars — and you find out people are different. People are threadbare. They’re very anxious.”
For the past two years, people have struggled to do their work — whether in hospitals or restaurants, in shops or schools — while knotted up with the fear and uncertainty of the COVID-19 crisis.
For the subset of Americans who had the luxury of working from home, their professional lives mirrored their personal ones: upended. They answered emails from their couches, spoke to teammates on Zoom and refashioned daily schedules to accommodate this new remote-work era.
Now, some have gotten the message that their employers are trying to restore an old status quo. Dozens of companies are calling workers back to the office: Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, Chevron, The Washington Post. And some worry that their teams aren’t prepared for the emotional transition awaiting a workforce already on edge.
“Gone are the days of put your head down,” said Desiree Coleman-Fry, a diversity, equity and inclusion executive.
In a McKinsey study of more than 2,900 people last year, one-third of those who had just returned to the office said going back had negatively affected their mental health. The will-they-won’t-they saga of office reopenings hasn’t helped, making it tough to prepare for a new routine.
For some workers, there’s the difficulty of giving up habits they formed at home; for others, there’s the prospect of facing slights, insensitive comments and cliques. And many, knowing that they’ve changed in the last two years, don’t feel ready to get reacquainted with their teams.
“So much of our humanity has been exposed,” Klein Modisett said. “There’s kind of no turning back. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”
But the workaday duties drag on, sometimes in jarring contrast to the magnitude of world events. For Kelly McComas, 25, a designer in Brooklyn, the dissonance between following crises in the news and fulfilling her professional obligations is clearest at the start of her meetings. On a recent video call with a team in Poland, she said, the opening moments of the conversation made clear that nobody knew how to discuss Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“We kick off a meeting and ask how everything’s going, and they’re like, ‘Well, there’s a war,’” McComas recalled. “And we’re like, ‘Yeah, there’s a war.’ And then we go into the design meeting.”
Supervisors are finding that they are called on to help people navigate personal challenges, whether or not they have the training to do so. Kim Theobald, head of human resources at RCM&D, an insurance brokerage, started facilitating a weekly call for managers, giving them space to raise questions about how to support workers.
“I’ve had a lot more employees reach out to me due to their anxiety, often saying they can’t pinpoint the reason for it,” Theobald said. “I’ve had phone calls from managers saying, ‘This is what I did, and I hope I handled it correctly.’”
Some companies are trying to directly address mental health challenges that their staff may be facing. Arrivia, a travel business, said use of its “employee assistance” program, which provides no-cost therapy, had increased tenfold since the start of the pandemic. The company has also surveyed workers about their needs around returning to the office and has written up a plan that puts a priority on flexibility, allowing many people to work from home if they prefer.
Real, a mental health app that offers programming on topics including relationships and body positivity, plans to pilot a four-day workweek, running next week through June, to give employees more time to rest and focus on their families. The idea came from Real’s founder, Ariela Safira, who recognized after the December holidays that she was experiencing a sense of numbness fueled by overwork.
Like Safira, many mental health professionals are finding this moment just as hard as the clients they serve do. April Koh, founder of Spring Health, a mental health startup that offers employees access to therapy and other services, recently realized she hadn’t fully dealt with her own pain after being targeted with a racial slur on a street in New York. When her team planned a healing circle to discuss anti-Asian violence, which has increased during the pandemic, Koh surprised herself as she wrestled publicly with questions about her personal history.
“I hadn’t expected to be so emotional,” she said. “There is kind of a shared mentality, to an extent, among Asian Americans about keeping our head down and staying invisible. It was powerful for me to be so vulnerable.”
She worries that many businesses, which had never before made an effort to address their staff’s mental health, still aren’t being proactive in helping people take care of themselves, especially with insurance plans often offering paltry mental health coverage. The average wait to see a provider was more than 20 days nationally even before the pandemic.
“Some companies take the posture where they say: ‘We’re resilient. We’re all about business. That’s what we’re going to focus on,’” Koh said. “That’s just not the way to solve problems.”
Apps and even paid time off can do only so much. For many, the angst runs deep, exacerbated by the emotional gap between their work responsibilities and the realities of 2022. Business leaders may talk often about authenticity, yet many of their employees are unsure how to present themselves to colleagues when they’re struggling.
“It feels crazy to be expected to keep your cool and go on with your life,” McComas said. “I don’t know if I can bring my full self to work anymore because it feels so disingenuous with what’s happening outside work.”
And the vocabulary of the workplace is expanding, as managers try to find the language needed to check in on employees. They’re learning to ask about challenges that go beyond deadlines and deals, conversations that don’t always feel natural in a sterile office environment.
Jennifer Strauel, head of human resources at Arrivia, has heard from employees who experienced sickness, relationship breakdowns and the loss of loved ones.
“We’re getting comfortable using words about feelings instead of just concrete business topics,” Strauel said.
©2022 The New York Times Company
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.