Life & Work Skills

Remote Work Creates a Unique Type of Anxiety—Here’s How to Handle It

Remote workplace anxiety"
Remote workplace anxiety
Graphics by: Aryana Johnson
Graphics by: Aryana Johnson

Once upon a time, anxiety-inducing moments at work consisted mainly of awkward attempts to make small talk by the coffee machine, being called into your boss’ office unexpectedly, or struggling to remember a coworker’s name. Now, the coffee machine is a Slack channel, Google Calendar ensures that no meeting goes unscheduled, and everyone’s name is right in their little box on Zoom. In a hybrid or remote workplace, new stressors abound. From struggling to interpret the tone of written messages to the endless stream of notifications, it’s hard to know what the new normal of the workplace really is—and whether we even like that new normal.

Add two extremely tech-savvy generations working together for the first time on top of all of this, and you get some pretty extreme remote workplace anxiety. In December, Business Insider highlighted the intense impact the remote workplace has had on the mental health of Gen Z and Millennials—Gen Z as they enter the workforce and Millennials as they navigate new managerial roles. A 2022 Gallup survey found that nearly half of all employees ages 18-29 reported that their job had negatively impacted their mental health. And remote workplace anxiety isn’t just showing up in hard news and numbers: Social media stars like Corporate Natalie show in their content that between entry-level Gen Zers and Millennial bosses, everyone is kind of freaking out.

No matter your generation or position, it’s likely that you’ve been touched by a tad of remote work anxiety at one point or another over the past few years. How can managers and entry-level workers alike turn the remote workplace into something that actually works for us? Not to toot our own horn, but The Everygirl has been hybrid and remote since pre-pandemic—and we have some thoughts. Here’s how two of us, as a manager and entry-level employee duo, navigate the ins and outs of remote workplace anxiety and how you can, too.

If you’re feeling unclear on protocol at your new job…

As an entry-level employee: Take as many chances as you can to chat on video

When I first started interning at The Everygirl, I had been used to spending hours on Zoom with my classmates, even when we were just silently working on a paper. Comparatively, being assigned tasks and communicating with my team members almost completely through Slack, Asana, and email in the workplace left me feeling untethered. I struggled to know when to ask for more work and was even more intimidated when I felt like I might need something taken off my plate. My solution to this over the past couple of years has been taking advantage of every single video and audio chatting opportunity that comes my way. During video check-ins with my managers, I’ve been able to brain-dump my questions once a week rather than bombarding them via messages when I’m feeling confused about protocol.

As their manager: Substitute desk-side chats with screen-sharing

When I first entered the workforce, I shared a small office with our entire department. Which meant I had (almost) unlimited access to both my peers and supervisors whenever I needed help. Our younger employees, who started working in a post-COVID, remote-first world, have no one next to them to turn to for help. It’s a loss I never really considered until I saw it firsthand. For me, making the switch to full-time remote years into my career was a welcome transition that saw my productivity skyrocket—but I already had the soft skills that come from working in an office to help me in new roles.

That context is crucial when considering how new entry-level employees get their questions answered. They can’t pull aside a friendly peer who can show them the ropes. Instead, they have tiny Slack icons and a list of names they’re not familiar with. With this in mind, I take every opportunity to screen share when anyone on my team has a question or when I’ve assigned them a new task. While this isn’t the same as walking up to their desk and showing them how to do something in person, visually seeing how a task is meant to be completed can go a long way in providing clarity.

If oversharing and emotions are interfering with your work…

As an entry-level employee: Ask yourself if your manager really has the answers

Where conversation flows more naturally in an office setting, the nature of virtual meetings brings out the blabbering in me. Far too often, I’ve found myself brain-dumping to one of my managers or sharing something about myself that is irrelevant to the meeting I’m in. Frankly, a lot of what addressing this problem has looked like for me is taking a moment to consider what my bosses can and cannot help me with before our check-ins.

Before the meeting, I’ll ask myself which of the anxieties that came up for me in the past week are things that they might have experience with or insight on. Sometimes, I’ll be stressed about something that falls perfectly in my manager’s wheelhouse, so I’ll know I can open up to her about it. Other times, I find myself taking a step back and deciding that that particular workplace anxiety is something I need to cover with a friend or another entry-level coworker. Doing so has helped me parse my work stressors between things that have an institutional solution (which I bring to my manager) and things that have an individual solution (which I work through myself).

As their manager: Sympathize and focus on what you can control

I was once a college freshman, working retail, crying in the stock room because I had Big Feelings at work. In retrospect, that was neither the time nor the place for me to express those feelings. But, the ability to compartmentalize my personal and work stressors didn’t arrive until years into my career. Separating work from life is always challenging, which means that when we’re experiencing stress in one of those areas, it can easily manifest in the other.

I wish I could snap my fingers and make everything OK for my direct reports, but I can’t—and that isn’t my job. Instead, when emotions start affecting how someone is feeling about work, I take a step back and put myself in their shoes. Chances are, I’ve felt exactly (or at least similar) to how they’re feeling. Then, I focus on what I can actually do for them. In many cases, that means reprioritizing their projects, moving due dates around, and offering unique accommodations if there’s a particular area causing stress. Being flexible is key; it gives employees the freedom to work through their feelings in the appropriate avenues and return to their regular responsibilities feeling reinvigorated. In the meantime, I often try to find something “fun” for them to work on when they come to me feeling stressed or burnt out.

If everyone around you is reevaluating their relationship with work…

As an entry-level employee: Try having “upward empathy”

I entered the remote workplace in the spring of 2021, right around the time that everyone started to actually appreciate not having to change out of sweatpants for the entire workday. Throughout my first few years of working remotely, this new approach to the workplace clashed with what can only be described as my overwhelming youthful enthusiasm for work. While my coworkers who had a few years under their belts welcomed an energetic shift, I was left with a lot of excess anxious energy that had nowhere to go once I started.

The mindset reframes that completely shifted how I felt about this hard-to-navigate dynamic came up in an interview on The Everygirl Podcast with Lauren McGoodwin of Career Contessa. McGoodwin highlighted “upward empathy,” which happens when an entry-level employee feels empathy for their manager. As new employees, we typically think of managers as having empathy for us, but a whole world of possibilities opens up when we start to have empathy for them. Considering how I could incorporate upward empathy into my workflow finally gave me a place to direct my entry-level eagerness in a work world that was reevaluating what a healthy work-life balance looked like. Thinking about how I could make life easier for my manager has meant gaining skills I might not otherwise have the chance to learn, including learning the ropes of audio and video editing and even experimenting with how AI can help streamline workflow. Having a decent work-life balance doesn’t always mean doing less. Sometimes, it means doing more work that you find more interesting or intellectually stimulating.

As their manager: Figure out what makes them excited for work and lean into it

There’s a lot of ~discourse~ around how the different generations approach their jobs. With each passing age group, workers seem to prioritize the life part of work-life balance a whole lot more—and I am 100 percent here for it. But in a world where the most important things to the newest generation of workers are maximizing their PTO, clocking off right at 5, and making sure they’re getting paid what they deserve, how do you make sure they’re also interested in and happy with their work? There’s a big difference in the output of employees who are simply signing on for a paycheck and ones who genuinely love what they do. Our job as their manager is to help them become the latter.

I know that not every aspect of a person’s job is going to be the most fun thing ever, but if I can, I always try to give my team responsibilities that I know excite them and make sure they’re growing in the direction they want. Rather than assume I know the best path, I use our check-ins to gauge how they’re feeling about their responsibilities and offer suggestions when things start to get a little mundane. By constantly checking in on how they feel about their work and pinpointing where they’re most interested in doing more, I can move them further in that direction when performance reviews and promotions come around.

If you’re struggling with engagement…

As an entry-level employee: Get involved at work to foster more connections

According to a 2022 Gallup survey, most young workers don’t feel a connection to their coworkers and are much more likely to be actively disengaged at work than previous generations. Doing good work means feeling invested in your workplace and work culture, and it’s harder than ever to achieve that level of community and enthusiasm in a remote environment.

In my experience, joining the Employee Engagement Committee at work was the biggest game changer for my own day-to-day enthusiasm for my job and my workplace anxieties. Knowing that there are other people, many of whom I have never met in person, in my workplace who want to organize opportunities for connection as much as I do helps me feel like my workplace is a true community rather than an ethereal swarm of Slack messages. Through EEC, I’ve made connections with coworkers with whom I rarely have a chance to chat on video, realized that it actually is possible to plan a fun virtual event, and found yet another outlet for my youthful enthusiasm. Finding opportunities for non-work chat, whether it looks like hopping on a committee or even just connecting with your manager over your mutual love of Taylor Swift, is essential for preventing workplace anxiety—especially on those WFH days when it just feels like you’re going through the motions.

As their manager: Dedicate time to connect on non-work topics

When I was a mid-level employee working in an office, I spent a lot of time getting to know my coworkers and supervisors on more personal levels. This meant chatting about the huge movie release we all saw over the weekend, Taylor Swift’s Lover announcement, or laughing over a funny meme we just saw. All this chatting, admittedly, is part of the reason my productivity went through the roof when I started working from home—but in the early stages of my career, it made going to work every day something I looked forward to rather than dreaded.

Now that much of our work is conducted from the comfort of our own homes, those opportunities for connection are few and far between. Something I’ve had to learn and am still getting better at is providing space at the beginning of (and sometimes throughout) meetings for more personal conversations. In more one-on-one settings, this means asking my reports about the things they did over the weekend or asking for their thoughts on whatever it is that went viral over the weekend. It is so easy for employees to feel isolated when their only real company is their laptop and re-runs of Gossip Girl playing in the background, so I try to remember that meetings have a secret second purpose: fostering connections between team members who rarely get face-to-face time with each other. But even on days with no meetings, reaching out with an article they might like, a book recommendation, or even a meme that made you think of them can go a long way in making employees feel like they’re part of a team rather than floating in the abyss.

Final thoughts on workplace anxiety…

From an entry-level employee:

Ultimately, reducing remote workplace anxiety starts with acknowledging that it exists. It’s different and less tangible than showing up to an office on the day of a big presentation or forgetting a coworker’s name, but it’s there nonetheless. Your approach to managing these new stressors will be different depending on your role, your company, and your pre-existing relationship with work—but the way we tackle remote work anxiety as teams and institutions start with open conversations. And if you want to be the one to get the ball rolling? Easy: just send this article to your boss.

From a manager:

Whenever I find myself struggling to understand what a direct report might be feeling, I remember little Garri crying in the stock room at her retail job. Granted, everyone I’ve worked with since then has it a little more together than I did, and it helps remind me that workplace anxiety is a real issue that I can do something about. The solution we, as managers, come to will (and should!) be different from person to person, but if you start from a place of sympathy, are flexible when you can be, and lean into the things that foster their growth and engagement at work, you can address workplace anxiety before it leads to an even worse problem.