Melody Wilding for hbr.org, | October 12, 2021

Re-Entry Stress Is Contagious. Here’s How to Protect Yourself.

Six strategies for managers.

Read at hbr.org

Protecting against re-entry stress is something all managers need to be mindful of, since absorbing direct reports’ emotions will only fuel greater angst and perpetuate a vicious cycle of fear. The author offers strategies to avoid being an emotional sponge while still being empathetic to your team’s needs and concerns: 1) Take your emotional temperature. 2) Visualize a boundary. 3) Empathize, don’t internalize. 4) Practice co-regulation. 5) Be a resilience booster. 6) Have a way to cleanse the day.

“I can’t fathom how I’ll go back to working in the office. I just finished fully adjusting to working from home,” my client Alana, a vice president of marketing, said with a troubled look on her face. She sighed deeply and continued, “My biggest worry though, is how to handle the emotions of my team. Everyone is so anxious and worried — and it’s starting to take a toll on morale, and me.”

Many leaders I coach share Alana’s concerns. As companies unveil their return-to-work plans, employees’ fears are hitting a fever pitch. It’s understandable when health and safety concerns abound (Will everyone wear their mask? What about germs in shared spaces?). There’s also the stress of re-acclimating to in-person dynamics (“I forget how to make small talk,” one client told me while another said, “I don’t think I have slacks that fit me anymore.”)

Re-entry anxiety doesn’t only affect the individual employee experiencing it. Stress is contagious — a psychological effect known as emotional contagion. Research has shown it’s possible to “catch” the emotions of others. In other words, humans naturally (and unconsciously) mimic the behaviors, posture, and facial expressions of those who they spend a lot of time around. This is true for teams in the workplace, too. You’ve probably witnessed emotional contagion in action before. For instance, when someone’s negative mood brings down the energy of a meeting, or during the height of the pandemic when your friend’s panic buying spurred your own shopping spree.

Protecting against re-entry emotional contagion is something all managers need to be mindful of, since absorbing direct reports’ emotions will only fuel greater angst and perpetuate a vicious cycle of fear. Not only that, but emotional contagion can harm your personal well-being as a leader. The moods of those around you can impact your own. This is especially true for a certain group that I call sensitive strivers. Representing about 20% of the population, these leaders have more active mental circuitry in empathy areas of the brain (called mirror neurons), which cause them to be more influenced by — and reactive to — other people’s feelings and behavior.

So how do you shield yourself from “catching” your other’s re-entry anxiety? Here’s how to avoid being an emotional sponge while still being empathetic to your team’s needs and concerns.

Take your emotional temperature.

As a leader, you may be the primary source of emotional contagion. Consider yourself like a mood inductor: because of your power and authority, others pay attention to your behavior first and foremost. If you’re carrying worries and fears into conversations, your team will pick up on it and the low mood will “infect” and “spread” to others. That’s why it’s important to periodically check in with yourself throughout the day to be aware of what emotions you’re “carrying into” your interactions. This applies to both in-person and virtual interactions where you need to be mindful about the tone and feelings you’re transmitting. I like to recommend my coaching clients use a simple mood tracker to monitor themselves. You can also get creative. Set the background on your phone to display a simple mental check-in question such as “how am I feeling right now?” or schedule a calendar notification that reminds you to consciously assess your emotional state.

Visualize a boundary.

When a direct report expresses concerns about returning to work, you may take their re-opening anxieties personally, perceiving them as a judgment on your competency as a manager. Their stress may trigger worry for you. You might think, “Should I be more concerned? What if they think I’m failing to advocate for them?” If you’re a sensitive striver, you may feel so affected by these interactions that the residual feelings last for hours or days afterwards. A helpful way to create separation and shield yourself from others’ emotions is through visualization. Imagine there’s a glass pane between you and the other person where their reactions cannot get through and affect you. Another great visualization is “zipping yourself up” energetically. Place your hand by the bottom of your stomach, then draw an imaginary line up your body to the top of your head, as if you were zipping up a coat.

Empathize, don’t internalize.

Don’t wallow or delve into fear-based thinking with your team. Straddle the line between holding space for your directs’ concerns without allowing them to complain or spread anxiety to one another. Instead, leverage empathy. See these moments as an opportunity to shift into compassion and validation. Encourage solution-focused problem solving through the use of questions. Here are a few examples:

  • It makes sense that you’re nervous about coming back to the office. Let’s talk about ways to make it a smooth transition for you.
  • I hear you’re worried about our new hybrid schedule. What have you considered so far in terms of adjusting how you’re prioritizing your workload?
  • I understand the current climate of uncertainty is nerve-wracking. How can I, as your manager, support you through this time?

Practice co-regulation.

Emotional contagion isn’t all bad. The truth is that positive emotions can spread, too. Leverage the fact that human’s nervous systems sync to your advantage with a technique called co-regulation. Co-regulation happens when you intentionally calm or soothe yourself, which then influences the people you’re with to do the same. If you’re dealing with an anxious direct report, consciously slow down your breathing and take deep belly breaths. Speak more quietly and slowly (what I call my “therapist voice”). You can also model relaxed body language, such as rolling your shoulders down your back and sinking your hips into your chair. You’ll notice your mood shifts, and also that your team member’s panic decreases as well.

Be a resilience booster.

Psychology research finds that you need five positive interactions to outweigh one negative one. This means you can turn the tables of emotional contagion by offering praise, recognition, and compliments to your team. Try starting meetings by having each person share a win from the last week, for instance. Add a section to your one-on-ones with staff to reflect back the areas they’re growing and improving in their roles. You can also consider starting a “shine” channel on your company messaging platform where team members acknowledge and celebrate each other for a job well done. These efforts work to create a more positive emotional culture and balance out the effects of contagion.

Have a way to cleanse the day.

Disconnecting after work is crucial to ensure you don’t carry a sour mood with you after hours. I recommend creating a transition ritual to symbolize the transition from work to personal time. You might process events from the day by reflecting on your top accomplishments or learnings, for instance. If you’re commuting to and from the office again, perhaps you listen to a non-work related podcast or audiobook on the way to decompress. My clients who are still working at home often like to change their clothes to signify the end of the workday. Most of all, remember that the best, most emotionally resilient leaders make self-care non-negotiable. They don’t view downtime as “lazy,” but rather an essential investment in their workplace performance.

Re-entry anxiety is bound to affect us all in the months ahead. Using these strategies can prevent emotional contagion from bringing you and your team down.