Why Returning to the Office Could Benefit Your Mental (and Professional) Well-Being
There are some advantages to ditching the sweatpants, according to psychologists.
Throughout the pandemic, humans have gone through the process of habituation—a decrease in response to a stimulus after repeated presentations—in many facets of life, particularly the work realm. Just think: back in March 2020 many companies hastily implemented a WFH model, a novel working environment for many. The quick shift to digital required a staggering amount of energy and self-discipline. As a matter of fact, employees remarked how the new experience felt strange and even wrong or disorienting. However, through the process of habituation the work from home model now actually feels normal and, for many, more desirable than picking back up on that commute and putting on appropriate office garb. But is constantly WFH good for everyone's mental health?
The short answer is no, according to Michael Mazius, PhD, renowned psychologist and director of North Shore Center in Wisconsin. While organizations have done a tremendous job to replicate the office environment through a virtual setting, there is no denying that it isn't the same. Mazius is a strong proponent of returning to the office—when it's deemed safe—as he believes social interactions play a tremendously positive role in our happiness. Yes, remote and hybrid work models absolutely have their advantages and are likely to become permanent fixtures of how we work. However, it's important to realize the implications WFH all the time can have on our mental health as we make decisions on whether or not to return.
Joe Flanagan, senior employment advisor at VelvetJobs, a career matchmaker that connects one million new curated jobs for jobseekers globally, has interacted with several candidates who are very eager to go back to offices, as well as others who are confused. "Certainly we're in a situation where we all still need to be flexible and allow ourselves time to adjust," he says. "But until we're able to replace the depth and impact of in-person conversations, the spontaneity of water cooler talk, and the energy of working in close proximity, engagement will suffer."
Mazius finds, however, that many people he speaks to aren't necessarily eager to ditch the sweats and get back to the office grind. Why? "Human beings are organisms known for habituating," as he puts it. "When we habituate, we grow used to novel changes. I am now seeing what looks like habituation in the form of wanting not only to work from home, but also stay at home even when our offices reopen."
So, why do we need to get back to work, and how do we get ourselves to just do it? First, Mazius urges you to ask the question, am I really better off working from home? "Maybe, without even realizing it, we're focusing more on what we don't necessarily like about the office and failing to see the good," he says. "Our brain is a quirky organ system notorious for convincing us that what we want is in our best interest. Without the big picture in mind, we're likely to make bad decisions."
Here, experts note key reasons—and mental health benefits—to look forward to going back to the office, whenever that happens for you.
1 Social interactions foster happiness and empathy.
People need people. That's science! Getting back to the office will fulfill our natural need for socialization. Plus, when we interact with others, we have more of an opportunity to empathize with others. "Social interactions are crucial to grow our social brain and social skills," Mazius says. For example, employee Georganne Hassell was hired last October by a company that had been working remotely since March 2020. She'd only been into the office three times and a few weeks ago she met other members of the team for the first time. Many of her colleagues are deaf, "so working with them over a video conference with American Sign Language interpreters is a great tool, but seeing them in person was energizing," she says.
2 There's a new appreciation for work-life balance.
Getting back into the office will give people a chance to change the monotonous or lonely at-home routine they've gotten used to, and reintroduce them to the practice of going to the workplace once again. In his book, Consolations, poet and philosopher David Whyte writes about the importance of leaving your house and entering the world. Flanagan, too, says, "Many people have been frustrated with the increased responsibility and friction in their homes. For way too long, people have used work as an unhealthy distraction from their lives outside of their job, and maybe now we're more aware of how to balance the two." Employers too, hopefully, are more aware of how important the balance between work and personal life is—and how critical employee mental health is. Now, when this awareness and compassion is so fresh, it actually feels like a good time to dip your toes into the office routine.
3 You'll get back into a healthy routine.
Amelia Alvin, a practicing psychiatrist at Mango Clinic in Miami, Fla., explains that physically going back to work will help facilitate a healthy daily routine—getting up, going to work in a different setting, and coming home—that's conducive to a more creative and active work-life balance. When you're working from home, the lines between work and non-work can blend together, leading to burnout, lethargy, and even more severe symptoms of depression. Being forced to get up, get dressed, make a plan for the day, interact with others, experience some stimulation variety, and physically separate office life from home life can be very helpful in staying mentally balanced and boosting mood.
4 There are opportunities for growth, confidence, and creativity.
"When we're in a social space, we expose ourselves to all kinds of wonderful, important, and interesting possibilities. When we get out there, we take on challenges and thus, grow grit and self confidence," Mazius says.
5 There are clearer windows for career advancement.
"The office environment can give a new or restructured psychological perception about the life and career of the individual," says Iyejare Olusegun, career counselor and founder of the Self Discovery Blog. "They can get more assurance of their career advancement and security, then assurance of better lives for themselves and their family, then more feelings of fulfillment through knowledge of active contribution to society; all of which were shaky when away from office work, and major facilitators of anxiety."
6 You gain inspiration and validation from coworkers.
"The identity that we derive from our work is one of the biggest factors that influences our sense of skills, worth, and success," says Flanagan. "A major part of this identity consists of the co-workers and colleagues, who are not only like-minded individuals on a similar journey as ours, but also the community that sometimes gets more of our time than our families and friends." He adds that due to spending so much time together, and sharing work goals and projects, your managers, team members, and other coworkers "play a big role in reaffirming our sense of value, appreciating our work, and supporting us to grow professionally."