Lead with empathy as we head back to hybrid work

Campaign Savvy wordmark with headshot of Campaign US editor Alison Weissbrot

Mental health considerations beyond COVID must come into play as offices reopen.

As I hopped on the C train from Brooklyn on my way to the office for the second week in a row, my biggest concern was getting caught in the rain without an umbrella.

By the time I entered my office I was thanking God for my life after hearing about a shooting on an NYC Subway platform not far from where I live. I began my morning not with the usual onslaught of pitch emails, but rather “are you ok?” text messages pouring in from family and friends.

As I sit at the office writing this, I’m debating taking what will likely be a $75-plus Uber ride home during rush hour to avoid the subway, as the shooter is still, as of writing, at large. 

But I know I can’t live in fear forever, and eventually I will have to take the train. After all, I am a carless New York City resident.

Like many companies exiting the haze of yet another COVID surge, starting in April, my company requested that staff return to the office at least one day per week.

Unlike some, I’m actually excited by this change to my routine. I am an extrovert, so being in the office with other people is invigorating (although I do miss my cat). Walking down 7th Avenue to grab lunch, or meeting a contact for coffee, reminds me of the good old days.

But I’m aware that, for many people, returning to the office is a major trigger.

As much as we want to get back to normal, another recent uptick in COVID cases, a surge in violence in cities and an ongoing onslaught of tragic news out of Ukraine, China and other countries can make the idea of a simple commute to the office too difficult to bear. Frankly, it's enough to incite agoraphobia.

As people struggle to navigate these stresses, companies are left walking the impossible tightrope of acknowledging people’s mental health needs while encouraging a return to the in-office connection and collaboration we’ve been sorely missing.

Despite gun violence continuing to run rampant without consequences in the United States, a subway shooting is not an everyday occurance. Maybe President Biden’s crackdown on ghost guns will help, but if history is any indicator, I don’t have high hopes that another senseless shooting will encourage people to part ways with their firearms.

Regardless, the pandemic has not just upended our schedules but also wreaked havoc on our collective mental health — in part because of the uptick in violence and tragic news it has caused. So as companies push for a return to in-person work, they’ll have to carefully balance their mandates with narratives about wanting to protect workers' mental health.

New Yorkers are tough, and I will undoubtedly be back on the subway without a second thought soon enough. But without empathy and careful consideration of all the factors impacting people’s mental health right now — from COVID and beyond — the return to work could be a lot bumpier than planned.

And as businesses continue to lose people to the Great Resignation, they can’t afford to put people’s health — mental or physical — on the back burner.

Change is hard for everyone, and upending our routines after two years will be painful, no matter how necessary. But leading with empathy and taking individual situations into consideration has to be part of this new normal.

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