Forget Zoom Fatigue—IRL Work Is Zapping Us

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you’re back The office—as in an actual, physical space with cubicles and photocopiers and a communal fridge (hopefully not still full of mysterious Tupperware from March 2020). You’ve buttoned up in your business-casual best, you’ve made small talk with Janine from accounting, and you’re back to the unspoken etiquette of it all — hovering outside a boardroom the second it hits the hour and ever. Doesn’t use a bathroom cubicle next to a busy person – like no time passed.

At the end of the day, you may love it, or you may resent every moment of it, but it’s almost guaranteed that you grew tired of it. Like, going to bed at 8 o’clock in the night, wiping in different ways. Which seems strange when you consider that many of us used to go to the office five days a week. “How did I ever do it?” you may find yourself asking.

“It’s certainly a common occurrence among today’s workforce,” says elizabeth christodoulou, a London, UK based organizational psychologist. “Whether an employee is returning to the office full time or only a few days a week, it is normal to experience feelings such as fatigue, tiredness or just general discomfort.” (In psychological terms, “distress” usually translates to anxiety, stress, and/or depression.)

To be clear, this is not the same thing as “zoom fatigue“The exhaustion that plagued us at the start of the pandemic, thanks to a combination of a) the world expanding around us a) the fact that looking at your face at a screen all day, is uniquely taxing on the human brain. ( The technical term? “Cognitive overload.” Or, as we like to call it, “Why didn’t anyone tell me I did the weirdest thing with my eyebrows?”) This “office fatigue” is a new kind of fatigue. Brought to you by companies asking their employees to come back to physical workplaces.

So how do we navigate this reality? Let’s first start with understanding why it is making us so tired.

Why is working in person suddenly so exhausting

Our collective fatigue has something to do with how you may feel about going back to the office first. christodoulou points to a Recent McKinsey Survey The report said that one-third of respondents felt that returning to work IRL “had a negative impact on their mental health.” According to the survey, factors include concern about catching Covid and loss of flexibility in their schedules. But it can also be attributed to the accumulated load of, uh, stuff you have to deal with in an office that isn’t part of working from home, which may involve commuting or wearing hard pants. And the “human to human” aspect — small talk, face-to-face meetings — can be especially draining.

It’s not that we’ve forgotten to be human, Christodoulou says, but rather that we’ve been fighting evolutionary conditioning over millennia to find new things stressful—even when they’re theoretically familiar. “A lot has really changed. Think about social relationships, personal boundaries, meeting new people you might not have seen before,” she explains. “The combination of gradually adjusting to a new environment, increased awareness of cues around us and overcoming social awkwardness in the aftermath of COVID-19 can lead to feelings of stress and fatigue among employees.”

Dealing with office politics and being dragged from one in-person meeting to another can also lead to emotional depletion, says Christodoulou. “Meanwhile, the fact that employees may have less flexibility in how their day is structured may contribute to feeling less engaged at work.” In extreme cases, she says, feeling this way can contribute to persistent burn outWhich is essentially physical and emotional exhaustion.

And that is if you weren’t already close to burnout. As Christodoulou points out, many companies saw layoffs (or laid off employees as part of the “Great Resignation”) and it was not uncommon for remaining employees to be saddled with the actions of their former colleagues in addition to their own. . “Burnout while returning to the office [phase] Overworking can also result,” says Christodoulou. A commute, small talk and low-level discussion of fluorescent lighting—all draining water in their own way—is like drawing water from a dry well for many people. Might be worth the effort.

“The combination of slowly adjusting to a new environment, increased awareness of cues around us and overcoming social awkwardness in the aftermath of COVID-19 can spark feelings of stress and fatigue among employees”

Plus now, you’re breaking two years of habits as well. Christodoulou says that many of the scheduling changes we’ve adopted over the past few years can improve quality of life, like being able to go to the gym at lunchtime or pick up your child from school. For example, those workouts may have given you the endorphin boost you needed to get through the day, while getting a chance to spend time with your family may also mean you’re taking a break. If you were gaining power you wouldn’t have a day in office. After all, not all fatigue is necessarily physical. “It is important to consider that many employees have been yearning for more flexible working patterns over the years,” says Christodoulou.

difference between fatigue and frustration

Koula Vasilopoulos, senior managing director at talent-solutions firm Robert Hoff, questions whether we’re really tired or what we’re experiencing is actually frustration with our work conditions. She draws a link between the phenomenon of collective fatigue and a general reluctance to return to the pre-pandemic status quo.

“It’s fair to assume that after not traveling for two years, ‘what do I wear’ becomes ‘what do I bring for lunch?’ Without thinking about… there are so many different thoughts that create this feeling of fatigue for people,” she says.

It certainly doesn’t help, she says, that most office days often involve video calls with people who aren’t in the room. And now, you’re squeezing in IRL interactions—side-of-the-desk meetings, watercooler chats, etc.—into an already jam-packed schedule. Yes, you can spend WFH days on Zoom too, but you’re not burning mental energy by the coffee machine making small talk with Brenda or spending three hours in soul-sucking traffic.

For Vassilopoulos, it’s important that employers let their employees feel the frustration of the office, and “lead with empathy and flexibility,” instead of shoving a task down their reluctant (or just tired!) employees’ throats. Try to find a way out.

“This [about] stuck on how you feel personally,” she says, speaking directly to the kind of leader who self-identifies as “old-school” and who can’t relate to an employee who says they want to increase productivity. and wanting to talk to people IRL all day long. (These bosses are often the ones who came into the office alone during the pandemic, from their corner office over their employees’ empty workspaces watching with sadness.) “What’s most important is how your employee is feeling. You need to listen to their concerns and ask how you can help manage and alleviate some of those specific stressors.” can,” she says.

How to combat office fatigue

Combating office fatigue doesn’t necessarily include the incentives many companies have been swinging to get employees back into the office, which range from free coffee to private lizzo concert Which Google wore at its Mountain View, California headquarters this spring to ease their unpopular mandatory return to the office.

According to Vasilopoulos, incentives are a short-term solution to a long-term problem: Your employee doesn’t want to come back to the office and you need to figure out why. “Focus on providing a purpose rather than an incentive,” she says. That means making it clear to employees why you want them in the office and making sure you’re making the best use of that time in person. “That could be team building, brainstorming, mentoring or other tasks that benefit from collaborating individually,” she says. “But offering people coffee or lunch just to get them to come in? People will see through that very quickly.

“It is important to consider that many employees have been craving more flexible working patterns for years”

A good first step for employers might be to simply poll their teams for their definition of “coming up with a purpose,” which will mean different things to different people. Vasilopoulos says it’s impossible to have a situation where everyone is going to be happy, but it helps to give people the opportunity to share their thoughts on what’s important to them. “I think it makes it easier to come up with an approach and a strategy that best suits your team and your business.”

Vasilopoulos suggests rethinking the idea that a day at the office means sitting at your desk from 9 to 5. Rather, it can be an afternoon of brainstorming, or a morning of meetings that work better face-to-face. The goal should be to balance the flexibility and convenience of working from home with the camaraderie that people appreciate when they get together. “The companies that will continue to grow will be the ones that ask, ‘How can we do both?'”

Oddly, she’s heard of companies finding success with everyone in the office on the same day, rather than a staggered structure where you might be the only person in your department, say Tuesday, because The rest of the team comes on one. Thursday. People want to be together if they are individually—not working alone.

Ultimately, this isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to staving off office fatigue. “It’s going to take some time, just like it took us time to adjust to working from home,” Vasilopoulos concluded. “I hope the end result is that employees can continue to feel like they have choice, flexibility and balance, which leads to greater productivity, retention and job satisfaction.”

And if you’re an employee feeling hit by office fatigue? Try changing your mindset, says Christodoulou. “If you need to go to the office, try to focus on the potential benefits, such as reducing loneliness and improving productivity,” she says, adding all the usual advice—leave your work at work, self-care. Take time to talk, tell others how you feel—apply. Also: try to take it at your own pace, as much as you’re able to. “Try to take a gradual approach to socializing,” she says. In the meantime, you can always stop by that complimentary coffee cart for a triple espresso.

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