Man stressed out

Managing stress in a hybrid world of work

05 November 2021

The ongoing changes brought on by the pandemic have created an unexpected and longer-term exposure to high levels of stress and uncertainty. 

As society slowly reopens and a new world of hybrid work and travel comes into place, the ability to deal with stress and the ambiguity of uncertainty are key components to working well within this changing environment. Being able to acknowledge and deal with stress is paramount to successfully adapting to all stages of the pandemic, and is also a key skill to develop for every aspect of both our work and life success.
Stress is an often misunderstood word and the effects of stress can be mislabelled as solely negative. The reality is that we always have stress we live with every day, and a certain level of stress is essential to being productive and to achieving short and long-term goals. Managing stress well is therefore a key component to being successful. 
On the other hand, too much stress or an accumulation of additional physical, emotional and psychological stress over time is not favourable. Too many large or small changes all at once can move a person and a system into unhealthy distress reactions. 
The Wrkit and Allianz Partner’s Global Working From Home Survey (WFH), conducted over an 8 month period during the pandemic, has highlighted a number of key areas where an increase in stress due to the pandemic contributed to issues with sleep, connectedness, exercise and eating habits. The impact on participants lives also showed a variety of unhealthy and mixed reactions to WFH during this time, which, if left unchecked, can be compounded and lead to a variety of longer-term health and wellbeing issues. 
The WFH survey results showed that WFH full-time and not having the ability to go to the office at all, left many feeling more fatigued and less energised, with a negative score of 45 out of 100. The survey also highlighted that the ability to work from home more often improved sleep with a positive 72 out of 100 result. Other areas impacted by the shift to fully WFH during this time highlighted the impact on diet with a negative 27 out of 100 result, while it was very encouraging to see a positive 77 out of 100 result in favour of feeling physically well.
With workplaces reopening and the potential for hybrid working into the future, it is important that the survey findings are considered in helping to maintain the positive results such as more sleep and physical wellness, while addressing the negative effects of WFH long-term such as diet, taking necessary daily breaks and regular exercise, and adjusting to a blended working environment. 
Knowing what is having a positive impact on work and life, while also acknowledging the challenges and what isn’t working , is important in being able to plan and maintain a healthy routine that works with both full-time WFH and a new hybrid way of working.
Below are some suggestions on how to manage the stressors most likely to impact in the next stage,  and adjusting to a new way of working and living:

Everyone’s situation is different, as is everyone’s role in the workplace, and it is important that open discussions are happening regarding what is possible to maximize a way of working that reinforces wellbeing and productivity and reduces unnecessary stressors. To achieve this, workplaces can create an avenue for staff to connect with their managers, not only to explore options around work routines but to develop a stronger and closer relationship so they can share openly what is going well and what the new challenges are with a return to the office.

Some good ways of exploring options are:

  • Regular short wellness surveys
  • Larger company-wide surveys
  • Planning sessions
  • Focus groups
  • Including it as a discussion point on team agendas
  • Regular wellbeing one-on-one catch-ups

Humans are creatures of habit, and we like to plan and structure our time where possible; however some habits and patterns are not that helpful and at times it is good to readjust what we do and how we do it. The changes caused by the pandemic have allowed some time for us all to review our new working habits.

This information is key in reducing the negative work/life stress of a new routine going forward. When moving to a blended way of working, it is important to consider the areas that will be impacted most by the change. For example, sleep patterns, morning routines, and travel should be considered, as well as home life routines on office days.

Some strategies you can try:

  • Allocate realistic timeframes based on travel and scheduled meetings
  • Adjust sleep routine to match, by intentionally going to bed earlier the night before to ensure adequate rest
  • Plan for the commute ahead of time
  • Book some social time with colleagues in the office ahead of time e.g. coffee, lunch, walk
  • Monitor initial energy levels a couple of weeks into hybrid working
  • Discuss with your manager any pain points with the new routine
  • Talk at home with family about your new routine and what will help regarding household duties like cooking and washing, etc.
  • Continue to adjust and re-evaluate to improve 

Distress levels are unique to everyone and while some people love performing in front of a crowd, others dread the idea. Stress signs, however, are quite common to all of us, and knowing more about how we feel when we are stressed and how we show our stress, are great early warning signs to help us address these stress reactions, before they build into distress.

Some common distress signs are:

Easily irritated, angry more often, wanting to lash out, feeling more pressured and being more demanding or urgent. Accusatory or blaming others or the situation regularly.

Tension in the body such as jaw tight, stiff shoulders and chest muscles tightened, neck pain, tension headaches, hands tight, red face and raised blood pressure, inability to let go of tension.

Restlessness, fidgety, unable to get regular good sleep, excessive worrying, feeling trapped, racing thoughts.

Panicky feelings resulting in breathing affected, lungs feeling tight and heavy, stomach pains, excessive sweating, fear of what might happen.

Unable to concentrate, mind easily wandering, brain fog, freezing or locking up, forgetful or absent minded, avoiding situations, distancing or isolating.

Generally demotivated or negative about situations, with lack of problem or solution solving.

We all feel different levels of stress at different times; for example before a presentation, if an important deadline is approaching, or we are taking a test. This type of stress is actually there to motivate us and kick us into action, and as long as we recognise it as such and can then take action appropriately, this energy is very useful.

The same is true for situations that feel uncomfortable, such as reopening post-pandemic, taking public transport again or returning to the office . Having to hand a number of techniques that we know help reduce the effects of stress and activating these techniques, makes the whole process much easier. This can also include a time limit if things get too pressurised or uncomfortable, and being able to extract ourselves from the environment easily.

Techniques to reduce stress:

  • Whatever the challenge, break it down
  • Take every day as it comes, every hour as it comes
  • Focus on what is working well
  • Buddy up, talk through things as they happen
  • Measuring your stress and worry: 0 (calm) to 10 (Panic)
  • Practise what you know reduces worry – like focused breathing or encouraging self-talk
  • Set a goal to reduce the worry number to a lower number
  • Understand that these sensation are controllable and can be influenced 
Calling on others for support is a key strategy to success in navigating a new hybrid way of working. Part of a good plan of action is to structure in time with others to stay connected and to find a space to talk through all that is happening, while also allowing time for things that are a good distraction from the challenges and which will increase the more social aspects of reopening.    
As you move to exploring the in-person world again, having someone to talk to and share your experiences with can be mutually beneficial, especially during stressful times. This could be time with your manager, a close colleague or group of colleagues, or seeking some confidential professional support. It is often not easy to start these conversations but usually once they begin, it gets easier and it becomes more reassuring to know that making this time is possible and productive in relation to managing stress.  

It may be obvious to say but important to recognise that new patterns of behaviours and changes to routine take time to manage, and there will be instances when it will be more stressful and frustrating, as well as times when it gets easier and more familiar. A key to success is self-care and the ability to relax where possible when you feel tension or pressure, safe in the knowledge that it is a process and will improve over time as the new way of working becomes the norm.

It is safe to say that the pandemic has taken its toll on all us and it has been a very challenging time to both work and live through. Reopening society,  returning to the workplace and being social once again are all positive signs of success and that we are moving in the right direction; and as we regain confidence in our interpersonal relationships, we can continue to manage our health and wellbeing just as we have been doing since the onset of COVID.

For more information visit the Allianz Partner’s Global Working From Home Survey.