Stress, Fatigue and Emotional Strain in the Returning Workplace

 This article considers what employers can expect to see concerning increased stress and anxiety and outlines an evidence-based resilience framework to help.

 As we all know, the past few months have been unprecedented, forcing us to make changes of all kinds, while still trying to move forward with our daily lives. The pandemic has brought forth an unusual combination of apprehension and uncertainty, stress and anxiety. For some, it has been a difficult transition with many added stressors, while for others, it has provided the opportunity for some much needed down time. No matter what someone’s experience was, fostering ongoing resilience is critical. What held resilience in place before COVID was no longer a given. People experienced upheaval in social contact and supports they relied on, were challenged to stay positive, safe and well, to manage their emotions, and even to maintain exercise routines.

 As COVID crashed into our collective lives, in person workforces scrambled to set up work at home for non-essential staff. As leaders helped to transition workforces to work at home they, more than ever, needed to have conversations that blurred personal and professional boundaries and addressed anxious fears. How do you feel about working from home? Do you have the ability to work at home? How’s your wifi? Do you have an adequate, private space?  How will you also care for your kids during this time? Are there other factors at home that will impact your ability to work? One conversation after another after another. Endless workplans and protocol planning. It was tiring and stressful.

 Employers put health before the economy, but perhaps now, the economy before health. Many businesses are attempting to reopen and leaders are nervous. Regions have varying rates of testing and tracing, and protocols to keep workers safe. The Black Lives Matter movement swept across the globe creating needed momentum and change, but also a live experiment. How much does COVID transmit in outdoor spaces? We will soon find out.

 And now people are going back into offices. We told people COVID was so dangerous that they must work from home and now despite it being nowhere near gone, it is time to go back to the office. Some people are relieved. Some disappointed. Others are nervous. Leaders are having to sift and sort between a complex array of considerations as they support people to return. How safe do you feel returning? How is your health? How is your families’ health? Do you have childcare in place again?  Perpetually talking about safety concerns can be draining.

 Transitions are seldom stress free. Many people got used to working at home. Not all businesses will return to in person offices, but for those that do, leaders need to be mindful of the discomfort inherent in shifting routines and fears about returning. Should a second wave hit there is a good chance people will be back at home again. The back and forth rollercoaster is fatiguing.

 People will settle back into work routines, however experts are predicting that we can expect increased incidents of mental health problems and lowered resiliency. Given that people coming back are in various states of ease and dis-ease, ensuring support for evidence-based resilience practices paramount. There are so many models out there and many are not grounded in workplace research so it is important to be discerning. One model that fits this criteria is the Resilience at Work model by McEwen and Winwood, 2013. They define Resilience as: “An individual’s capacity to manage everyday stress and remain healthy, rebound and learn from unexpected setbacks and prepare for future challenges proactively.”  

 We know that resilience is a state not a trait. The good news is we can build it up. The bad news is we can lose it if we become nonchalant or are hit with high stressors. The seven key components to focus on are: Living authentically, finding your calling, maintaining perspective, mastering stress, interacting cooperatively, staying healthy, and building networks. Organizations can tailor efforts based on what their particular staff need.

Signs of early strain in these areas looks like this:

Living authentically

Inability to manage emotions, low self esteem

Finding your calling


Maintaining perspective

Negative outlook, excessive worry

Mastering stress

Lack of balance and poor self care routines

Working through breaks, working long hours

Interacting cooperatively

Not reaching out and connecting with others

Staying healthy

Poor health indicators- e.g. lack of fitness

Building networks


Dr. Catherine Carr MCEC, PCC, RCC