Campus News

You are in control

With a return to the workplace coming, University mental health experts offer advice on how to handle changes in work and home life.

Illustration of laptop computer screen Zoom meeting with a participant stepping out of the screen into an office.
(Shutterstock image)

You may be feeling apprehensive about returning to the office or workplace. Maybe you started a new job during the pandemic and have never set foot in the office or met your co-workers face to face.

Remember, you are in control and can solve any problem.

That’s just one tip about adjusting to change that two Carolina faculty members, psychologist Echo Meyer and psychiatrist Dr. Nadia Charguia, offer.

Echo Meyer

Echo Meyer

Meyer, clinical psychologist and vice chair of psychological services in the UNC School of Medicine’s psychiatry department, said that before the pandemic, we relied on our hard work and our decisions to control outcomes. “You might say, ‘I felt like I made a good decision today and it led to something that I feel good about or that is part of my personality or part of the way I think of myself as a worker or the way I think of myself as a spouse or partner or a parent,’” Meyer said.

During the pandemic, we shifted to focus more on how external forces beyond our control shaped our lives. The shift may have created anxiety, nervousness or shakiness about changes, Meyer said.

Still, the pandemic forced us to improve our problem-solving skills. We figured out how to handle remote work, with its video meetings, while juggling home life and pandemic-related complications.

“When the pandemic began, competency was an issue for us all, but we figured it out, then we somehow forgot that we were pretty competent at solving problems, how to work with our families, how to take care of our well-being,” Meyer said. “But we did it then, right? And now we just have to shift and do it again. People are going to have to trust in themselves.”

“In the pandemic, people have actually been more competent than they give themselves credit for. Now, we just have to translate that back into going back to work. We solved problems during the pandemic, and we can do it again.” — Psychologist Echo Meyer

Charguia is an associate professor in the UNC School of Medicine psychiatry department and medical director of UNC Health Psychiatry Outpatient Clinics. She directs UNC Health System’s Taking Care of Our Own Program that promotes wellness programs to combat burnout among all UNC Health employees.

Nadia Charguia

Nadia Charguia

The light at the end of the COVID tunnel is visible, Charguia said, but she knows that many people wonder what that means for their work life and home life. “It’s evoking a constellation of feelings. There’s a lot that is bittersweet, as well as elements of trepidation and hesitation.”

Feelings about returning to the workplace may arise from fears of exposure to the coronavirus, leaving a routine established since March 2020 and many unknowns.

Charguia has heard firsthand from workers and supervisors and urges them to:

  • Acknowledge what is a known and what remains an unknown when anticipating stressors, which can help alleviate anxiety and stress by practicing acceptance.
  • Be flexible. Decisions made for one situation may not work for everyone. “Those in leadership positions often need to make decisions that impact others. It is important to recognize that we are all coming from so many varying places with different motivations, complications and needs that one may not be able to guess or anticipate. Flexibility is going to be key.”
  • Communicate, because talking and asking questions will bring about understanding that can help change more unknowns to knowns. “That will go a long way. Be open about where you’re at.”
  • Try to avoid losing yourself in the “what-ifs.” Focus on the stressor in front of you instead of anticipating possible stressors that might occur. The worry can consume your emotional energy.

She also advises people who like to plan and people who are prone to worry to try some purposeful thought about what we learned in the last year.

“It’s only normal that we reprogram a wee bit. We need time to plan how to pivot next,” Charguia said. “I hope we can all embrace learning points from this past year and avoid automatically falling back into old habits that may not be our best habits.” Relying on old habits can mean we’re not focusing on helpful things we learned about ourselves, our workflow and our motivations and bringing those insights into the next phase of our lives.

Charguia also coaches people to practice some introspection to understand what is causing any anxiety or worries.

“Anxiety can be a healthy experience at times. It can be protective and at times helpful as we prepare for the road ahead or the stressor that we’re facing,” Charguia said.

A return to the workplace could be a chance to refine our work and home lives. “Everyone is exhausted from this year. Even if they coped well and did well across the board, many are working so much harder in all aspects of their lives. It will take some time to figure out the best ways to re-establish boundaries between work and home life and make sure we are also once again focusing on ourselves and needs as well,” Charguia said.