Ask a Therapist: How to Cope With Irritability From WFH and How It Manifests With Coworkers

by Roy Fisher

Question: How do I cope with an increased degree of irritability these days with people still working remotely and how that manifests in online interactions with work colleagues?

Dear Reader, 

I’m sure this struggle resonates with many. The past year has seen us go from multiple social interactions to very few. We changed the way we shopped, worked, ordered meals, communicated with friends and family, and how we taught our children, just to name a few. Human beings are relational creatures — yes, even those of us who identify as introverts. We exist in the world in relation to others. Since we exist in relationship, relationships help us know we are doing alright. 

While the virtual world has allowed us to continue some semblance of our relational interactions, we have lost a major part of how we communicate. Due to this, our ability to connect with others has suffered. Yes, we get to see people on our screens and hear their voices, but we miss out on the subtle communication that goes on during social interactions. This is more than simply our body language, there is an energy that is shared when we are engaged with someone else. This exchange of energy happens individually and in groups. I’m a sports fan, and while I have enjoyed the ritual of watching sports on TV, it doesn’t feel the same without the screams or boos of the crowd. There is just something different.

When we work side by side collaborating on a project, we collectively share in the excitement or anxiety of whatever the task at hand is. We also share in the celebration of its completion. These interactions create pathways in our brains connecting us to those we work with. Over the course of time, and after more of these successful interactions, we feel closer to our colleagues. Another way we connect with each other is not solely about how we work, but by sharing space. We have also lost out on the times we congregated and simply catch up. Gone are the shared meals and the times when we would simply plop down in someone’s office and check in. The loss of these informal gatherings removed our opportunities to talk about more than just the job. We are more than our work; we are more than our job descriptions.

When I was younger, I never understood how my parent’s colleagues knew so much about my life. When I would run into someone, many knew how I was doing in school, where I graduated, or even when I got my wisdom teeth pulled. They knew if I was having a good basketball season or if it was going to be a long year. It wasn’t until I had my own children that I realized how frequently I shared parts of my life with people I worked with. We connected around our shared stories — I knew them, and they knew me. 

Human beings are creatures of habit. As we move through this thing called life, we find a rhythm to the way we interact with the world around us. Between the time we wake up and the time we go to sleep at night, we make a series of choices. If you think about the choices you make, you will find your pattern. Why is this important?  Repeated patterns create a sense of comfort. When we can predict what is likely going to happen and believe that we have some control over our lives, we normalize the pattern and fall into the rhythm of our life. This rhythm brings with it a sense of calm. 

The year 2020 was the very definition of unpredictability. Each day, week, and month challenged our definition of what was normal. We couldn’t identify a pattern because we didn’t feel comfortable knowing what would happen next. Our days were a blur of the same. Tuesdays? Not that different from a Thursday? Since I’m not leaving the house, what difference does it make that it’s Saturday? Wait, it’s Monday already? Adding to this uncertainty, boundaries blurred. Based on the question, you have likely been able to work from home, but the typical workday might have been impacted by the needs of your partner, because they are at home too, oh and someone needed to make sure the children were logged into school instead of getting lost on TikTok, or wait, was that you?

When things are uncertain, we feel a sense of anxiety, and that anxiety often manifests as irritability. Irritability is the body’s way of telling us that something is happening, and we need to make an adjustment. So much has been said about our “new normal” or the need to “pivot” like this is somehow new. We adapt and adjust all the time, constantly redesigning our lives. When we started at a new school, we needed to figure some things out. When we left home for the first time there was an adjustment period. When we got married, had children, experienced a loss, got fired, or received a promotion — each event changes our view of what was and what could be. Discomfort is driven by our attempt to force what was, in this case our lives pre–COVID-19, into what is. We are irritable because we are trying to fit the square peg in the round hole … it does not fit!

To address this remote work irritability, we need to look at ourselves as both the individual and the colleague. 

If there ever was a time to focus on caring for ourselves, this is it. Self-care is more than just time to recharge, but an intentional examination of how we are doing in relation to what is going on around us, while identifying what we need to show up as close to our best selves as possible. We should think of self-care as both a relationship with ourselves and a relationship with others. When we recharge, we feel better, and when we feel better, the relationships around us improve. In this context, part of self-care is allowing space to be open to the experiences of others. We should find time to check in with our colleagues. We need to take the interactions beyond the work and beyond the pandemic, wondering how they are finding their rhythm. Essentially, we need to humanize them beyond their video image, to see them as a reflection of us. 

When we take the time to care for ourselves, we also begin to care for the experience of others. When we engage in this practice, we reduce the effect irritability plays in our lives, thus improving our professional and personal interactions.

I hope you have found this helpful.

Counselors Roy Fisher and Liz Covey answer readers’ questions for the South Seattle Emerald’s “Ask a Therapist.” Have a question about a relationship? Wondering about the struggles of being a parent? Others likely have the same questions and Covey and Fisher bring years of professional experience to provide their insights.

If you have a question, please click here and let us know. We will select two questions each month to answer. The form requires no email address or identification and is completely anonymous. If you are in crisis or in immediate need of care, please contact Crisis Connections at 1-866-427-4747.

Featured image: “Walking The Ledge Part IV” by StarMama (under CC BY 2.0 license).

Before you move on to the next story …
The South Seattle Emerald is brought to you by Rainmakers. Rainmakers give recurring gifts at any amount. With over 1,000 Rainmakers, the Emerald is truly community-driven local media. Help us keep BIPOC-led media free and accessible. 
If just half of our readers signed up to give $6 a month, we wouldn't have to fundraise for the rest of the year. Small amounts make a difference. 
We cannot do this work without you. Become a Rainmaker today!