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Workers face new pressures when they return to the office

NEW YORK – Last summer, Julio Carmona began weaning himself from a fully remote work schedule by coming into the office once a week.

The new hybrid schedule at his state agency job in Stratford, Connecticut, still allowed him to spend time cooking dinner for his family and taking his teenage daughter to basketball.

But over the next few months, he’ll likely face more mandatory days at the office. And that’s stressful for the father of three.

Carmona, 37, whose father died of COVD-19 last year, is worried about catching the virus but is also ticking off a list of other fears: increased lunch and gas costs, day care costs for his newborn baby and his struggle to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

“Working from home has been a lot less stressful when it comes to work-life balance,” said Carmona, who works in the finance department of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families. “You’re more productive because there are far fewer distractions.”

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As more companies mandate a return to the office, workers are having to readjust to pre-pandemic rituals like long commutes, childcare and physical interactions with co-workers. But such routines have become more difficult two years later. For example, spending more time with your co-workers could increase exposure to the coronavirus, while inflation has increased the cost of lunch and commuting.

Among workers who have been remote and returned in person at least one day a week, more say things have generally gotten better than worse and that they have been more productive rather than less, an April poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows. But the stress level for these workers is elevated.

Overall, the April AP-NORC survey shows that 16% of working adults reported working remotely, 13% work both remotely and in person, and 72% reported working in person only.

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39% of employees who have worked from home but have returned to the office say things have generally improved since returning to work in person, while 23% say things have gotten worse. 38% say things have stayed the same. 45% say workload has improved, while 18% say it has gotten worse.

But 41% of returned workers say the stress they experience has worsened; 22% say it has gotten better and 37% say it hasn’t changed.

Even workers who have been there in person during the pandemic are more negative than positive about the impact of the pandemic on their working lives. 35% say the situation has generally gotten worse, while 20% say it has improved. 50% say their stress has gotten worse, while only 11% say it has gotten better; 39% say there is no difference.

At least half of onsite workers report that balancing responsibilities, potential COVID exposure at work, their commute and social interaction are sources of stress. But less than a third name these “big” sources of stress.

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People with children were more likely to report that their return had negative impacts, in part due to concerns about protecting their families from COVID and maintaining a better work-life balance. Most said it could help relieve stress if their employer provided more flexible work options and workplace safety precautions from the virus. But for some workers, a physical return – in whatever form – will be difficult to cope with.

“Many people have adapted to working from home. It’s been two years,” said Jessica Edwards, national director for strategic alliances and development at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a US-based advocacy group. “For businesses, it’s about prioritizing mental health and being communicative about it. They shouldn’t be afraid to ask their employees how they’re really doing.”

Companies like Vanguard are now expanding virtual wellness workshops that began in the early days of the pandemic or before. They’re also expanding the benefits to include meditation apps and virtual therapies. Meanwhile, Target, which hasn’t specified a mandatory return, gives teams the flexibility to adjust meeting times earlier or later in the day to accommodate employee schedules.

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The stakes are high. It is estimated that untreated mental illness can cost companies up to $300 billion annually, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Russ Glass, CEO of online mental health and wellbeing platform Headspace Health, said he’s seen a four-fold increase in the use of behavioral health coaching and a five-fold increase in clinical services like therapy and psychiatric help during the pandemic compared to days before the pandemic . With apps like Ginger and Headspace, the company serves more than 100 million people and 3,500 companies. Top concerns include: fear of contracting COVID-19 and work-life balance issues.

“We haven’t seen it slow down. That level of care has just stayed high,” Glass said.

The constant wave of new outbreaks of the virus has not helped.

Francine Yoon, a 24-year-old food scientist at Ajinomoto Health and Nutrition North America in Itasca, Illinois, has been doing mostly personal work since the pandemic, including in her current role, which she started last fall. Yoon said her company has helped ease anxiety by doing things like creating huddle spaces and empty offices to create more distance for those who have any form of anxiety about being in close proximity to colleagues.

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But moving in with her elderly parents, both in their early 60s, last year has led to heightened levels of anxiety over concerns about passing the virus on to them. She said each wave of new cases creates some concern.

“When the cases are low, I feel comfortable and confident that I’m fine and that I’ll be fine,” she said. “When it comes to surges, I can’t help but be cautious.”

Carmona is trying to relieve his stress and considers attending his office’s online meditation sessions. He’s also thinking of carpooling to cut gas costs.

“I’m one of those guys who takes it every day,” he said. “You have to try to balance your stress levels because you’re driving your brain into the ground thinking about things that could go haywire.”

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The AP-NORC survey of 1,085 adults was conducted April 14-18 using a sample from NORC’s AmeriSpeak Probability-Based Panel, which is intended to be representative of the US population. The range of sampling error is plus or minus 3.9 percentage points for all respondents.

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AP contributor Haleluya Hadero in New York contributed to this report.

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Follow Anne D’Innocenzio: http://twitter.com/ADInnocenzio

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission.

https://www.local10.com/business/2022/05/08/workers-grapple-with-new-stresses-as-they-return-to-office/ Workers face new pressures when they return to the office

Justin Scacco

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