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August 09, 2022

WFH—Grief, Guilt, and the Loss of the Water Cooler Chat

8 minute read

Workplace Wellbeing

Written by

Caroline Myers, LCSW avatar

Caroline Myers, LCSW

8-minute read

For many, remote work has always seemed ideal. But when employees don’t have a choice, the loss of workplace norms—like the connection you get from being in an office setting—can hit harder than expected.

The workplace used to be a social environment, one of both productivity and companionship. Coworkers were office companions who celebrated the wins together and provided support during tough days, and conversations reflected that understanding. 

Working from home simply doesn’t offer that same sense of mission-driven camaraderie. 

Now, someone may walk into their living room and try to express the frustrations of the day to their significant other, only to be met by the reminder of a household task that hasn’t yet been done. 

Work and personal lives have blurred, putting a strain on both relationships and the individual employee. 

As a therapist, I work with many clients who are still struggling to navigate working remotely or adjust to a hybrid model. Without the routines and sense of connection that naturally comes with an office environment, they find it difficult to be fully present and productive, collaborate meaningfully, and separate work and home relationships. 

Here are some ways that losing an office, the commute, and a sense of connection are affecting my clients and employees around the world.

The loss of clear work boundaries

Let’s begin by addressing the guilt that can arise while working from the same space where you also live.

There’s an assumption that remote employees are working from a designated office space, but this is often not the case.  

Shared spaces like kitchens, dining rooms, and living rooms have become home “offices,” with all the distractions that come with them, including partners and spouses, kids, and even pets.

It’s hard not to think about what has to happen to keep your home running while you’re in the middle of it, and it’s easy to feel guilty about not doing those things. “Breaks” become used for emptying the dishwasher or throwing in a load of laundry instead of getting outside, doing a breathing exercise, or having a healthy snack.

The conflict of completing household tasks versus work during set hours has muddled the boundaries between home and work-life.

The loss of in-person workplace connection

Connecting with coworkers looks completely different these days. 

For remote employees, the days of exchanging a casual “how are you doing?” in passing (and in person) are long gone. 

Clients share that the constant ping of the company chat elicits anxiety and disruption for some, rather than the connection it intends to create. And when we do interact, there is still uncertainty about the right approach and what topics are okay to bring up. 

The loss of “water cooler conversations”

This survey found that impromptu conversations are what 43% of employees miss most while working remotely. These used to be a regular part of the workday, and now any interruption to heads down work is often seen as a negative.

Working fully remote has made it easier to pack days full of meetings without breaks or casual chatter. 

Those who began roles remotely and are now coming into office spaces are experiencing discomfort. Humanizing the people they’ve been communicating with through a screen isn’t even completely eliminating the feeling of disconnection. 

The loss of the commute as dedicated decompression time

My clients often share that their commute is a large piece of what they miss most about an office—time to mentally prepare for the day ahead or work through the workday that’s now behind them, before entering their home. 

Processing events is a crucial part of being able to identify emotions and cope with life’s challenges. A commute home at the end of the workday is built-in time to decompress and use various coping skills after a challenging or exhausting day. 

Typically, we listen to something on public transportation or in the car, whether it be music, a podcast, or an audio book. There’s an opportunity for breathing and mindfulness techniques to help de-escalate any strong emotions. Some employees used to stop at the gym to workout before heading home. 

For many, losing these ways to process and release emotions has led to increased tension in the home—more arguments, less patience, and a lot more pent-up feelings. It can also heavily impact an employee’s productivity, work quality, and mental health.

6 ways People leaders can provide support

Combined with a lack of work/life balance and boundaries inside and outside of work hours, the loss of an office, in-person connection, and the commute can easily lead to disengagement and burnout. 

But People leaders can help. 

How? By implementing new strategies for creating space, connection, and time to both process and recharge.

Here are six ways to redefine today’s workplace in a way that reduces stress while boosting productivity and overall well being. 

Bring back the concept of the commute 

Offices have begun to reopen, but if you or your employees are continuing to work remotely, or even switching to a hybrid model, it’s still possible to create a commute. 

The goal is to create some space before the start of the workday, to help you transition into work mode, and time to process and decompress before you begin your evening. 

Here are a few ways to create some space:

  • Take a walk in the morning and/or evening
  • Go for a bike ride
  • Work out at home or at the gym
  • Commit to meditating or doing a mindfulness exercise

Anything that removes you from the physical space where you work and allows you to shift your mindset can be effective and make a difference in both your workday and your evening. 

Encourage therapy for processing and perspective

If your company offers a mental health benefit like Spring Health, encourage your employees and their families to use it, especially for processing work and home events. 

I often work with my clients during their lunch hour, which creates a healthy break in their day that provides perspective, accountability, and more focused and productive work, even in the midst of the most stressful days. 

Many clients are able to communicate more effectively with their coworkers and managers after a session because they released family and workplace frustrations.

It can be highly beneficial to give your employees permission to schedule an appointment with their therapist during the workday. This shows that you care about their wellbeing, and encourages them to prioritize their mental health. 

Give permission for regular “coffee breaks”

It’s quite accepted for employees to take regular coffee breaks during the workday. Also, most employees are technically allowed at least one 15-minute break and an hour-long lunch break every day. 

But the employees who diligently take those breaks unfortunately tend to be the exception. 

Encourage your employees to take a 10-15 minute break in the morning and in the afternoon, after an intense meeting, and even to play with or walk their pet to decompress during the day.  

These short breaks every few hours can increase energy, lower stress, and encourage remote workers to keep their mental health in mind during work hours. 

Reiterating that these breaks are for self-care, and not a quick emptying of the dishwasher, is also important. This encourages structured boundaries to keep work within work hours, and time outside of that is their own, for family, chores, and fun.  

Meet extroverted and introverted needs

Extroverted clients have shared that fitness challenges, virtual book clubs, and office hours have all helped them feel more connected to colleagues. Office hours not only offer accessibility to managers, but block time for employees to have a break during the day, step away from their computer, or have a focused hour of work. 

For introverted employees, blocks of time or a dedicated day each week without meetings, like a Calm Friday, can increase productivity and lower exhaustion. 

Eliminate back-to-back meetings

Leaving one Zoom room to head straight into another… and then another… is exhausting, and can lead to long hours because there’s no time to get anything done during the workday. Having a company-wide rule that eliminates back-to-back meetings can significantly reduce burnout. 

Scheduling 25- and 50-minute meetings is one of the best ways to solve for this, but it does require the meeting leader to respect the meeting end time. 

It can also be highly beneficial to give employees permission to turn off their cameras during at least some meetings throughout the day, especially when they’re experiencing Zoom fatigue.   

Clearly communicate these changes to your entire organization, and encourage leaders to model them so their teams feel comfortable following suit. Offering incentives such as gift cards or team lunches for those who follow through can be motivating in the beginning stages, until this becomes a company-wide habit. 

Implement regular mental health days

According to WTW’s 2022 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey, 53% of surveyed employees say that Mental Health Days from their employer would help their emotional health the most. 

Working in the virtual world is challenging, and taking a day off when the rest of the company is still working can still feel stressful. Giving your employees one Mental Health Day a month can make a huge difference in the levels of both productivity and burnout for your entire organization. 

The benefits of a redefined workplace

There is so much more behind the screen of your remote employees and hybrid schedules, and grief is affecting us all in different ways. 

Between grieving all the pandemic workplace losses, dealing with the guilt that surrounds us while working from home, and feeling disconnected from colleagues, your employees are carrying a lot. 

Helping them find creative new ways to integrate pre-pandemic workplace norms into the way they’re working today can help lower stress and improve their mental health, while making sure they’re engaged and committed to staying with your company. 

Data suggests that the cost of implementing even a few changes is less than that price tag, and will ultimately reduce loss of productivity and valued employees.  

Read this blog next to better recognize the many faces of grief in your workplace, and cultivate a culture that allows employees to build resilience and thrive in a tough, ever-shifting environment.

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About the Author

Caroline Myers, LCSW avatar

Caroline Myers, LCSW

Caroline is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Colorado and North Carolina. She specializes in transitionary periods of life in her current practice. Previously, she worked with youth aging out of the foster care system combining both skill building and therapeutic intervention into practice.