How to Talk to Your Boss If You’re Worried About Returning to the Office, According to Therapists and HR Pros

published Aug 29, 2021
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Credit: Lauren Kolyn

After a year-plus of working remotely, you may have recently received the news that your office is opening back up — perhaps for you to go in a few days a week, or maybe full-time. This change may come with complicated feelings and some anxiety and stress. Are you ready to go back? How will you readjust to 40 hours at your desk after working from home without the distractions of an office environment? How will your employer handle future illnesses, and continue to take COVID-19 precautions?

These are all valid questions, especially in a world that’s constantly changing; mask guidelines have shifted several times, as have the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for vaccinated people. If you’re unsure about the return to the office and want to address your concerns with your employer, these tips from human resources professionals and therapists can help you start the conversation.

Acknowledge your nerves.

It’s perfectly normal to feel anxious or nervous about heading back to the office, even if you love your job and coworkers. “It’s natural to feel anxious when the topic of discussion is so meaningful to you, and I think it’s important we normalize that for ourselves,” says Christina Arceri, LMHC, and the chief clinical supervisor at Humantold.

If you listen to your body and work on some stress-relieving, centering techniques, you’ll be able to muster up the courage and calm you need. “These conversations are difficult because our health is on the line and it can be helpful to acknowledge that for ourselves without shame,” Arceri says. “In these moments, focus on where these feelings are appearing in your body: often anxiety appears through pressure on the chest or muscle tension. While you’re preparing for the discussion, these sensations may increase.” She recommends taking time to move your body, meditating, and using calming affirmations if you feel stressed and overwhelmed. “It’s not about eliminating anxious thoughts at that moment, it’s about supporting our body through the anxiety,” she says.

Make a list of questions.

Just as you do for an important meeting or interview, spend some time brainstorming exactly what you want to talk about, and what you want to know. “Write down your questions, read over your companies’ policies, and know your healthcare rights — you legally do not need to share any medical history with your employer,” says Lindsay*, a talent acquisition manager. “I would make sure I research the company policies on return to the workplace — What is the timeline? Are people being asked to get vaccinated, are there any vaccination incentives, what health protocols is the company following, if any? Are masks required for vaccinated and unvaccinated employees? If you have an immune deficiency or are at high risk, can you continue to work from home?”

Arceri agrees that making a list is a great way to feel prepared and set the tone for a productive conversation. “It’s perfectly acceptable to say, ‘Give me one moment, I wrote a few things down so I did not forget.’ This allows you to feel more in control going into the conversation,” she explains. “Vulnerability is difficult, especially within some workplaces, but at the same time it’s up to us to communicate our boundaries and needs.”

Start with your direct manager.

Bring your concerns and questions to your direct supervisor first, recommends Joe Leary, an HR director. “Your manager should have the first opportunity to answer your questions or address any concerns. A good manager will listen and want to help,” he says. “Explain your concern as clearly and directly as possible. If your manager is unresponsive or unable to assist, reach out to your HR department or benefits administrator. They will want to know that you’ve tried a direct approach with your manager. Walk HR through the steps you’ve already taken and restate your question or concern.”

Credit: Emma Fiala

Be open and honest.

If you have a good relationship with your manager or boss, schedule time with them to voice your concerns and share your feelings. “Speak up and voice your concerns with your manager and with your HR or employer relations representative, also ask what accommodations or support your organization has for people who are uneasy about the return,” advises Lindsay.  

“If you are uncomfortable in the office, explain why. If you are seeing unsafe behavior, speak up. Give the company a chance to address the concern,” says Leary. “If you are still apprehensive, ask HR for a temporary accommodation for an alternative work arrangement. Please know that some jobs are considered essential to operations and alternatives such as working from home may not be possible.”

Arceri recommends envisioning how you’d like the conversation to go and what you’d like the result to be, so that you can better ensure your voice is heard. “I’d suggest taking time to consider the desired outcome of the conversation, as well as your boundaries,” she says. “It’s possible to be both friendly yet firm.”

Know when to look for other opportunities.

If you don’t feel supported or heard by your company, perhaps it’s time to seek a new opportunity. “Nothing is more important than your safety and the safety of your loved ones,” Lindsay says. “I know that is easier said than done but the workforce is changing — people want remote work options — and companies need to change with it if they want to keep top talent.” 

*Last name has been omitted for privacy.