This story is from The Pulse, a weekly health and science podcast.
Throughout the pandemic, there were really two work-from-home stories.
The louder one was grim. Never-ending workdays, as the living room or bedroom became the office. Interrupted meetings, as kids and pets and parents popped up. Inescapable bosses. Exhaustion and burnout.
Epidemiologists know anxiety and stress skyrocketed during this past year, but not for everyone. There was another, quieter story. The story of those who found unexpected relief working from home — relief from some unseen workplace vampire they hadn’t even known was eating away at them.
In the United States, the COVID-19 vaccines have reached more than half the adult population now. Infections and hospitalizations are plummeting. Every day, there’s less and less reason to stay out of the office.
Lots of people love working from home because they don’t have a commute, or they don’t have to wear pants. But a lot of us love it just for the sheer solitude.
Media office worker Amy is one of those people. She asked to go by her first name only — returning to the office is a hot-button issue in some workplaces these days.
“I liked people, right, I just don’t like all the work it takes to be around people,” Amy said. “So I hope I’ll be able to continue to create a balance.”
Amy described herself as an introvert who has learned to be extroverted. A skill she knows how to use, but has to work at. The pandemic was a break from the little bits of social interaction many of us never realized were so subtly stressful.
“It’s like, ‘Oh my God, does that person just not like me? I’ve worked here for two years, and they didn’t acknowledge me today,’” Amy said. “You know, ‘Did I say something weird at lunch?’ Whatever it is, it’s the social anxiety part of work. I don’t think any of us realized how much we were squeezing out of our mental sort of sponge until we’re home and get to feel it?”
It’s the constant anxious churn over stuff that doesn’t matter. Amy didn’t notice how much of a toll it was taking on her until it was gone — until she no longer had to wear what she calls “masks.”
“There are a lot of these social masks that we wear in the office, whether it’s code switching or clothes we wear or makeup, or how we present ourselves, that you don’t have to do in the privacy of your own home,” she said.
Amy wasn’t really herself at work.
“In the office, I’m loud, I’m aggressive, I’m noisy, I’m annoying, and I recognize now how much of that is related to anxiety,” Amy said.
It was all just a performance for people who might or might not have actually been watching. In the office, it can feel like eyes are always on you, especially in an open office.
“Oh my goodness, it makes it worse because there’s nowhere to hide,” Amy said.
She remembers the strange relief she felt when an office manager added a beautiful, merciful extra wall to her cubicle. Now, people could only see her from one direction.
“Do you know how much it helped me to have that little second wall there so I had a little cubby and I felt like I could hide out?” she said.
When we started working from home, we were suddenly no longer spending energy just being in some place with other people for hours every day.
Karin is an office worker in finance who also wanted just her first name used. “It just seemed like there were just too many channels of communication that I had to manage. And then that would just become very exhausting for me,” she said.
People in the office weren’t just a source of stress to her, they were … work.
The social interactions in her office added up, tapped out what she called her “social energy meter.” By the time she got home, she felt like she had nothing left. That changed this past year.
“I’ve kind of socialized more with the people in my neighborhood or my family, or made more of an effort to be in touch with my friends on a deeper level,” she said. “If I’m spending all of that energy with the people I work with, then it leaves less of that for the people I live near and care deeply about.”
Dreading the office performance: New anxiety or old stress?
Joti Samra is a Canadian clinical psychologist who specializes in mental health issues in the workplace.
“Let’s talk about anxiety specifically, because one of the most marked areas of increase that we have seen since the pandemic hit, some of our stats will tell us that anxiety rates have quadrupled collectively,” Samra said. “Now what that misses is the fact that there are certain individuals and sub groups that have actually found counter-intuitively the opposite, where anxiety has gone down.”
She’s seen them trickle into her practice, these lucky few, all of them surprised to be feeling better.
“It has been actually quite stunning and unexpected initially to see, you know, people coming in and saying, ‘My anxiety is actually reduced. Being at home is, I’m embracing it,’” Samra said.
Could some people find relief from their anxiety simply by working from home instead of in an office?
“Do I see that as a standalone prescription? Probably not, because I’d say for most people, it’s not as simple as just the work environment,” Samra said.
It can help, she said, but it’s a bit of a chicken-egg thing. Is your work making you anxious, or were you anxious before you walked in, and so work feels like the cause?
Samra thinks it’s a bit of both: You don’t leave your psychology at the door when you walk into work, and you don’t leave your work at work when you go home.
But she does think we need to think carefully before pathologizing a normal human reaction to the absurdities of an open floor plan where everyone hears everyone’s conversations, like it or not, and your co-workers know how often you go to the bathroom.
“We’re creatures of habit, and we kind of get used to things the way they are. And so what that means is whether it’s high multiple stressors, whether it’s things that are in the background that might be negatively contributing to mood, what happens if we kind of just get used to it the way that it is,” she said.
That was true for Amy, the media worker grateful for that extra desk wall. She talked about the exhaustion of what she calls the daily public performance at an office.
“By the time you get home, it’s like ‘Ugh.’ And there are people who do it every day for years and decades,” she said. “A lot of it for me was just saying: Everybody does this, you just suck it up, you have to drive an hour, go to work, do your job and go home, and it stinks, but it stinks for everybody, not just you.”
Amy hasn’t had to deal with that for months. She makes more time for herself and for her family. More of her energy goes to that instead of the little stressors of office life.
Samra said most people she’s heard from don’t want total work-from-home, though — rather some kind of balance, a middle ground where you go in here and there.
Amy, amid her at-home bliss, said the same thing.
“Because I think it’s good for me to be pushed outside of myself,” she said. “If left to my own devices, I will self-isolate, and then that’s not healthy either. So it’s good to be pushed a little bit.”