Working from home has made us all paranoid

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Welcome to Insider’s work-advice column, "What’s Working?" It solves your real-life workplace problems with expert advice and research-backed tips, tricks, and life hacks. Got a narcissistic boss? A passive-aggressive coworker? Or a tricky situation at work? "What’s Working?" can help! Send questions about your workplace challenges to rknight@insider.com. Letters may be edited.

I’ve been at my company for four years, and right up until the pandemic hit, I would have described myself as a satisfied in-office employee. I had decent relationships with my coworkers, and my boss respected my work. Since March 2020, we’ve been fully remote. And with Delta raging, all return-to-office plans have been indefinitely postponed.

Lately, working from home is making me bonkers. I play out conspiracy theories in my mind when I sense even a slight shift in how my boss, colleagues, or leadership perceives me. I sometimes spiral into unproductive cycles of "Is this new meeting between Jim and Sally because of that thing I said in our team Slack yesterday?" or "No one has emailed me and it’s already 2 p.m. Does this mean I am not on the critical path of anything?" 

I recognize that these feelings are unhealthy, and I’m worried they’re starting to affect my job performance. What can I do?

You have my sympathies. Working remotely day in, day out is lonely and can often lead to feelings of vulnerability and paranoia. Research suggests that your experience is not uncommon. Who among us hasn’t wondered whether our colleagues and bosses are all talking about us on some other Slack thread? But knowing that others feel as you do is cold comfort.

Paranoia at work isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Stanford’s Roderick Kramer showed it can be a reasonable and appropriate response to a threat. He coined the term "prudent paranoia" to refer to a certain kind of attentiveness whereby being suspicious of others’ underlying motivations serves as a form of emotional intelligence and covert information gathering. Being "prudently paranoid" might give you an advantage in grasping social dynamics and predicting future outcomes. Problems occur when the paranoia becomes pathological — when you start reading into things that aren’t there. 

How to cope? For starters, get out of your own head. Ethan Kross, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, has a nifty technique that might help: Imagine a friend came to you with a similar problem. What kind of advice would you give? The goal of this exercise is to gain perspective and some psychological distance from the problem without trying to force yourself to ignore it or let it go. Thinking about how you’d counsel a friend could help you to stop ruminating and instead see your situation in a new light.

Next, focus on fostering better (read: more trusting) relationships at work. Vanessa Bohns, a social psychologist and professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University, recommended getting off Slack. It’s rife with opportunities for miscommunication, she said.

But Bohns isn’t necessarily advocating for more Zoom. In her forthcoming book, "You Have More Influence Than You Think: How We Underestimate Our Power of Persuasion, and Why It Matters," she cited research that showed how a phone call, even without video, can make a big difference in nurturing social bonds when compared to text communication. 

If you live near your workplace, you might invite local colleagues for an IRL coffee or lunch date, depending on your comfort level. Don’t limit yourself to only members of your immediate team. Bohns suggested reaching out to colleagues in other parts of the organization. Studies showed that connecting with weak ties can increase people’s happiness and make them feel more supported. 

"Generally, the more isolated we are, the more paranoid we tend to be," Bohns said. So get out there.

One final word, and I’m wary of making you even more paranoid: The little voice in your head might have an accurate read. Your colleagues really could be talking about you behind your back and purposely excluding you from their meetings.

Take a good, hard look at your workplace, advised Kevin Rizer, the author of "Always Wear Pants: And 99 Other Tips for Surviving and Thriving While You Work From Home."

"Is it fulfilling you? Or is it adding to your anxiety? Are people well-intentioned? Or do they like stirring up drama?" he said. "You could be in a truly toxic environment. It might be time to move on."

 Good luck.

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Rebecca Knight August 17, 2021 at 09:42PM

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