Navigating Stress as We Head Back to the Office

By John Hackston; head of thought leadership at The Myers-Briggs Company

As governments begin lifting COVID-19 restrictions, those enjoying the solitude of remote work may find the transition back to ‘normal’ highly stress. Keeping in mind that people who prefer Introversion compose about half the workforce, that’s enough stressed-out employees to take a serious bite out of job productivity and performance.

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However, we shouldn’t conclude that people who prefer Introversion are going to be alone in this. Personality is a complicated thing, and people of all personality types will experience various challenges. Even those who miss the hustle of office life may find the shift back to be jarring. After all, we’re not returning to the status quo:

  • Most have seen co-workers downsized, and may worry about their own jobs
  • Fear of contracting a potentially lethal virus has not gone away
  • It’s uncertain whether another spike in cases will cause a second lockdown
  • Change, in and of itself, is a major cause of stress–even change we desperately want

 Who is likely to be most stressed?

As we transition to the next phase of work, it’s helpful to understand who may be the most vulnerable to stress. Research suggests, contrary to conventional wisdom, that senior level executives are actually the least stressed. Our own study confirms this, and further shows that junior individuals also had lower levels of stress, despite lower pay and less control over their work. In contrast, we found that those in middle and senior management positions actually report the highest levels of stress. And of those, women tend to be even more stressed than men in similar positions (interestingly, the opposite was true at the executive level, where women were significantly less stressed than their male counterparts).

For this group in particular, it is likely the combination of lack of control, lack of support and high job demands that lead to stress. Unfortunately, a lack of control is a hallmark of the COVID-19 crisis; we cannot predict the course of the disease, and have little say over how government policy will affect our jobs. How do we most effectively manage stress under such circumstances? It’s tricky, as people experience it in such different ways that its signs often go undetected until it’s too late. How do you fight an enemy you can’t see?

There’s no single way that men or women respond to stress, any more than there is a single way that middle managers deal with it. Personality type, however, offers a way to understand stress signals and responses across gender, ethnicity, position and other demographic variables, based on whether we prefer to:

  • Focus attention on the outside world of people and things (Extraversion) or on the inner world of thoughts and feelings (Introversion)
  • Trust and use information based on experience and the evidence of the five senses (Sensing) or consider the future and how things connect to make the big picture (Intuition)
  • Make decisions on the basis of objective logic (Thinking) or on values and on how the decision will affect people (Feeling)
  • Live in a more structured, organized way (Judging) or in a more flexible, spontaneous way (Perceiving)

Extraversion and Introversion

Social distancing may have been particularly difficult for those with an Extraversion preference, and many may have relied on online tools such as Skype to stay connected. Conversely, Introverts may have enjoyed the calm of working from home, and online collaboration tools may have been a disruption, possibly even a stressor. Companies would do well to take a close look at how these tools are being used as employees transition back to the office.

For example, could they allow some employees to remain working from home, and if so what ground rules need to be put in place? Extraverts may for example see an impromptu Skype call as a welcome break, but Introverts as an irritating interruption. By giving employees the insight that other people have different communication styles, a great deal of miscommunication and conflict can be avoided.

Sensing and Intuition

Those with a Sensing preference may find themselves obsessed with the minutiae of social distancing rules, or the physical aspects of transitioning back to an in-person environment. Those with an Intuition preference may also face the temptation to over-complicate things as they try to figure out what the new boundaries are. Both may stand to benefit from guidelines that adequately describe the rules of physical interaction. And, don’t forget to reiterate the ‘why’ behind the guidelines–the rules don’t exist for their own sake.

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Thinking and Feeling

People with a Thinking preference may have been a little less motivated to maintain social contact with friends and colleagues than those with a Feeling preference. And, without the benefit of normal social cues, their task-focused and direct demeanor may have resulted in terse, impersonal online communication. In reconnecting with co-workers, try to find out if there are any misunderstandings that need to be resolved between those of Thinking and Feeling preferences. Providing closure on such conflicts will alleviate stress for all parties involved.

Judging and Perceiving

Those with a Judging preference typically enjoy a higher level of organization. Just as transitioning to a home office likely disrupted their routine, the transition back is probably disrupting a routine that was developed for remote work. Anything you can do to help these individuals quickly establish a routine will help alleviate stress, such as encouraging them to set clear goals at the start of each day, and reminding them that it is OK to set boundaries around working hours.

Those with a Perceiving preference may have enjoyed some aspects of working from home, such as the freedom to be flexible around hours. Transitioning back to the office could be viewed as a loss of such flexibility, so it’s important to emphasize the new freedoms, such as the spontaneity afforded by the ability to leave your house, switch up work locations, work with different teams and take advantage of ‘out of the office’ activities. It may also be worthwhile to take a hard look at the procedures that were in place before Covid; are they all still relevant, and can office life be made more flexible?

By taking the time to understand how your team will respond to the stress of transitioning back to an office environment in unique ways, employers can provide the skills and tools necessary to manage stress and remain productive.

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