Why Your Brain is Stressed About Workplace Reentry

Recently we held our first in-person program in over a year. We had assumed it would be just like riding a bicycle — hop back on and pedal! The reality, however, was much different. We felt out of practice and rusty. It took a concerted effort and plenty of focus to simply stay focused and alert. By the end of each day, we were exhausted!

As it turns out, re-entering “normal” spaces can pose an enormous challenge after taking a long hiatus. As coaches whose practice revolves around brain science, we knew this. But that in-person session served as a much-needed reminder. Adjusting to new systems (even if the “new” system is something that was once familiar) is tough. Even though the human brain is usually incredibly adaptable and elastic, it may need time to ease back into a certain setting after being away from it for an extended period of time.

Why is this? Why can’t we just flip a switch and adjust to new circumstances without residual exhaustion or anxiety? The negative reactions that crop up are tied directly to the nature of our brains…

When your brain is over-stressed, it can all become too much.

The Stressed-Out Brain

This past year, we’ve been asked to adapt to new and often challenging circumstances. We’ve developed new routines and adjusted to the “new normal.” Now, we’re being asked to essentially start over and figure out how to “do” in-person work again. Some of us in fact are maybe even entering yet a new, new normal — a hybrid work arrangement! This bouncing around can be tough on your poor ol’ noggin for many reasons.

For one, our brains resist change. The parts of the brain that govern habits and habit creation (namely the basal ganglia and brainstem) are meant to mostly run on autopilot. We grow accustomed to and comfortable with our daily routines, and when we’re asked to suddenly change them, that takes EFFORT. (See the article we wrote last year for more on the resistant brain.)Secondly, simply experiencing social isolation can take its toll. Studies in mice have revealed that isolation can be damaging to the brain’s gray matter (the outer part of the brain that governs many practical functions, such as motor control and coordination). The mice also had difficulties with learning and memory (linked to the hippocampus) after long-term isolation. The same sort of effects can be found in people. According to psychology professor Dr. Kalina Michalska, “in the absence of the social interaction that our brain expects, increased isolation and loneliness can lead to increased risk for cognitive decline.” So, when you’re asked to suddenly come out of isolation, you may be dealing with a brain that is stressed out and foggy. Yikes.

While the above statements are grim, don’t despair! Your brain can adjust once more to social settings and a “normal” workplace. As a species, we are incredibly adaptive and the typical brain is quite plastic (meaning, it is malleable and can readily adapt to change). Even an adult brain can create new pathways and connections. Despite what the adage says, old dogs can learn new tricks! You just need to train your brain.

How can you begin to ease your stressed-out brain into workplace re-entry? Try the following:

Three Steps For De-Stressing You Re-Entry

1. Be Intentional

Although it may work for some, most people won’t be able to successfully jump back into a new workplace routine without some intentional planning. Just as you did when you began working from home, it’s crucial to put some thought into your new daily routine.

Which habits did you begin during the pandemic that you want to continue? Which habits will you need to drop? If you’re enjoying a new morning routine, such as taking a short walk or reading the newspaper over coffee, you don’t have to drop it. Instead, figure out how to make it work in your new circumstances. Will you have to wake up a little earlier? Will you, perhaps, take your walk over the lunch hour instead?

We encourage you to really think about your daily patterns. Jot down what your ideal day would look like in the next “new normal” and figure out how to make it happen. Keep in mind, it can take a long time to adjust to a new routine. Take your time and practice patience!

Take time out of your day to relax and recharge.

2. Bolster Your Self-Care

We know. “Self-care” is a term that gets a lot of buzz and can feel hollow, or even a little selfish, at times. BUT, there’s a reason for the buzz: self-care is critically important. If you’re not addressing the needs of your brain and yourself, there’s no way you’ll be at the top of your game. In short, your wellness not only affects you, but everyone connected to you.

Start by being patient with yourself. If you’re having trouble adjusting to a new system, but others seem to be getting along just fine, don’t worry! You have your pace and they have theirs.

Keep in mind that “exhaustion and stress suppress the immune system.” Your mental health can play an important role in your physical health. Be kind to yourself, get enough rest, and take little breaks throughout the day if you need them. If you need to close your door at times to recharge your batteries, do it. If you’d like to hit “pause” once a day for a quick self check-in (How am I doing? How am I feeling? What needs to change?), do it.

3. One Small Step

To ease back into an in-person work situation, it’s helpful to tackle little “back to the office” tasks one at a time. Consider taking on one small step every day (or even once a week). Some ideas include:

  • Purchasing a few items of clothing for the office
  • Looking up new recipes for lunches and adding them to a spreadsheet or Pinterest board
  • Buying a new daily planner or calendar
  • Setting up a coffee meeting or lunch with a coworker
  • Buying a journal to use whenever you need to pause and reflect

Do your best to not plan too much for a single day. That might mean setting healthy boundaries and really tapping into your self-awareness. If you’re feeling overbooked or overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to say “No.” If you’re feeling stressed by people “dropping by” to chat, try establishing set office hours, close your door occasionally, or step away from your desk when needed.

If the transition back to an in-person workplace is stressing you out, you’re not alone. It’s natural to feel anxious or exhausted as your brain adjusts to a new daily pattern. Take your time, be gentle and patient with yourself, and begin formulating a plan for a new routine. Remember, everyone has their own pace when it comes to re-entering the workplace. Find your stride and keep on moving, one step at a time.

If you need some help adjusting or want to help your team adjust, please feel free to contact us at hello@thedisruptiveelement.com. We are here!

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Paula is an experienced Corporate Executive and an Executive Coach with over 30 years of experience who co-founded The Disruptive Element to ignite potential!

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Paula Winkler

Paula is an experienced Corporate Executive and an Executive Coach with over 30 years of experience who co-founded The Disruptive Element to ignite potential!