As the workplace landscape shifts due to the pandemic, employees struggle with returning to the office and working remotely.
“They offered nothing.”
Said former special education teacher Ashley Johnson, 36, recalling that her former employer refused to grant her accommodations to work remotely while caring for her son with special needs during the pandemic. Without other resources to care for him and her own mental health issues including depression and anxiety, she had no choice but to resign and go on unemployment. She has since has switched to working as a licensed behavior analyst.
Devra Gordon, a licensed and certified clinical social worker and psychotherapist in Fairfax County, Va., points out that everyone, whether they acknowledge it or not, continues to experience the fallout from a global traumatic event, and workplace experiences, like Johnson’s, can reflect that.
“The piece that people are missing is that the pandemic is a worldwide traumatic event,” Gordon says. “It isn’t just that you had to go home and work from home, where you have to be on Zoom calls all day. We’re also not being very trauma-informed in how most people are looking at the ongoing effect of the pandemic.”
New Jersey school teacher Kailynn Barbour-Nordstrom, 31, left teaching entirely during the COVID-19 pandemic to attend to her mental health and family needs. She gave birth to her second child in late 2020, extended her maternity leave as the pandemic continued, and finally resigned in 2021. Her worsening mental health issues along with the concern of teachers having to work in already overcrowded classrooms encouraged her decision.
“My priorities had shifted tremendously during the first year of the pandemic, and I didn’t feel that my health and safety were guaranteed, which would put my two young children at risk,” she said.
Barbour-Nordstrom experienced anxiety and depression during and after both of her pregnancies, and it worsened during the onset of the pandemic.
“Members of the LGBTQ community are already at risk for mental health issues, and I knew I was at risk for that statistic,” she said. “During the pandemic, my anxiety heightened tremendously. My physical health was at risk as well, as I was sick with ulcerative colitis.”
The mental and physical illnesses combined motivated her to extend her maternity level through disability, with the support of a therapist and LPN (licensed practical nurse) over telehealth.
“Add taking care of my two small children, quitting a job I loved, moving, and becoming my grandmother’s caretaker, and I’ve finally realized how much I need to take care of me,” she said. “I’m currently in a virtual IOP (intensive outpatient treatment) with a focus on emotion regulation in caretakers, something I’m extremely fortunate to have and be involved with. I wish I had known about this program at the start of the pandemic!”
Gordon says she did see an increase in anxiety among clients coping with shifting demands in the workplace.
“The workplace has changed,” she said. “Some people were hired during the pandemic and they’ve never met people they’ve worked with in person. So going back into an office, people don’t know what each other’s habits are, and they don’t know their colleagues.”
“Some people who were told to work from home were super happy to do that, and now that they’re being asked to go back, they’re not as okay with it, particularly people with social anxiety,” she said. She notes also that there are many others who are afraid to go back due to medical fears, on top of the anxiety of interacting with others, adding that there are even concerns about physical appearance, like gaining or losing weight, that affect social anxiety.
“The peopling is hard,” Gordon says. “What I’ve seen with some of my clients is that their social skills and ability to focus on what people are saying in Zoom calls is hard for people who have anxiety or social anxiety.”
“When we were in meetings in person, there are natural things we do during a meeting — we might gaze out of a window or look down at our shoe or adjust our collar, mess with a pencil,” she says. “On a Zoom call, there’s nothing for people to have their attention distracted by, so you’re staring at people or they’re staring at you, noticing anything you might do differently, like roll your eyes or smirk. There’s so much hypervigilance with people on Zoom calls because you’re emoting more, there’s not another place to look.”
Johnson’s pandemic employment experience, like Barbour-Nordstrom’s, worsened previously existing mental health issues.
“I have had anxiety and depression for years. A huge source of that has been in my situation of being a single parent of a child with autism and brain atrophy,” Johnson said. “Like many in my position [during COVID], I didn’t have family or friends that were willing to support him, and the pandemic more or less made that more obvious that I relied a lot on public options prior to the pandemic that were no longer available during the pandemic.”
Working from home was not the enjoyable free-for-all that some employers feared, and in fact caused additional stress for many people with mental illness.
“People at home who have anxiety have to work harder to manage it,” Gordon said. “Some of the natural things people might do in the course of the day to help de-escalate aren’t happening.” This includes simply leaving the house, meeting with co-workers or friends, or sharing space nonverbally, rather than staring a group of people down in Zoom squares.
There was additional stress and confusion over how much work was required in an online environment, particularly for people switching to a digital space after spending an entire career in an office.
“Telework is strange and also can promote anxiety,” Gordon said. “Are other people signing in more than I am? Am I signing in less? Does someone know I’m at my refrigerator eating out of the Chinese food container? Life becomes blurry almost. It’s very difficult to know what other people are doing, what they’re thinking, and how to supervise people too.”
Gordon notes that negative self-talk is common in people with anxiety, no matter where they land in the workplace, online or off.
“People are feeling helpless, hopeless, and frustrated, so the self-talk that people have been using during the pandemic has not been so encouraging,” she said. “They think, ‘I need to do this, I should be doing this or that.’ I tell people all the time, ‘Stop should-ing on yourself and should-ing on others. It’s not productive.’”
Johnson says she realized that many other people with disabilities deal with this treatment, and feels that there is generally no recourse for it. She had never asked for accommodations for her disability, since she began working at the age of 15.
“It was scary to put my medical information on the line to my administrators and others that I don’t really know personally to ask for help,” she said.
Janine Yancey is the founder and CEO of Emtrain, a platform that delivers ongoing culture education and development, plus a framework and shared language to make workplace behaviors visible. She says that employers need to be ready to support neurodiverse employees as they experience anxiety and burnout going back to the office.
“Along with other marginalized demographics, neurodiverse employees are vulnerable and often are expending more effort than others to show up ‘as their best selves’ to work with non-neurodiverse co-workers,” she said. “Reasonable accommodations would include flexible working schedules, hybrid workplace, and EAP (employee assistance program) assistance.”
This was not Johnson’s experience at all.
“My employer could have given me ADA accommodations for a few months so I could return in the fall,” she said. “Their refusal to recognize my disability and the disability of my son was something I wasn’t able to overcome. Also, when I made the complaint, I was ostracized. Admin directed others in the building to stop speaking to me, and I was labeled a troublemaker.“
Barbour-Nordstrom says that her employers were supportive throughout her pregnancy, up to and including her decision to resign, but she is at peace with her decision to be home for now.
“There was — and still is — a big risk in teaching 125+ potentially unvaccinated students and coming home to my too-young-to-be-vaccinated children,” she said. “Being home is a huge blessing the pandemic has given me. Not only have I been able to seek treatment for my mental health, something that I may not have been approved for if I were working due to me just having been out on maternity leave, but I’ve been able to spend time with my family and pursue dormant dreams, such as publishing my poetry chapbook, as well. I hope to return to teaching one day, but not until I know my children and grandmother are safe from whatever germs I may bring home.”
Yancey says that this supportive approach is necessary to support people with neurodivergence and other disabilities.
“Managers should be on the lookout for any direct reports who they believe may be struggling and in those instances, be proactive and ask the person how they can help support them,” she said.
Gordon says that employees with anxiety need this kind of support to switch their negative false narrative in the workplace. They do not need more criticism.
“Rather than saying ‘I’m going to be a burden, they’re not going to like me, I’m going to look like a bad employee’, say ‘I’m having a thought about being a bad employee if I ask for help.’ You can start to get it out of your head, and it becomes more manageable.”
Gordon says that employees who struggle with workplace pressures related to the pandemic and their own mental and physical health are simply adapting to an unpredictable and stressful situation.
“You don’t know how someone is going to respond when they are involved in a worldwide traumatic event,” she says. “I don’t think there’s anything that’s normal now. I think we can say there are things that people are learning how to do to make things feel more typical. I don’t think we ever had normal. We all have quirks, we just need to learn how to rock ‘em.”
Gordon recommends that employees with anxiety, depression, and related conditions who struggle at work go directly to their HR office, and know that if they have a diagnosis, those conditions can be considered under ADA. She also notes that employers are in what she calls “a new frontier of COVID accommodations.”
Johnson says that despite her struggle, she is in a good place now, a change that perhaps illustrates why the “great resignation” from the traditional, physical workplace is happening for many people, for deeply personal and often-overwhelming reasons.
“To share my parental status challenges, personal neurodivergence, and physical needs to be met with rejection was tough,” she said. “I don’t regret making the change of career, however, because I am now in a position where I can take time off and care for my son without having to worry about being fired or judged, since I am working remotely and making my own schedule.”
“People with anxiety and depression are worthy of accommodations,” Gordon said. “We are in a collective traumatic event. Let’s figure out accommodations for that.”