May 15, 2019

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who loves cubicles—the padded walls, gray tones, and Office Space vibe leave much to be desired. But their 21st century replacement isn’t all it’s cracked up to be either.

The open-concept office may be trendy and modern, but after a while it can start to feel like a wide-open productivity prison.

“We’ve had lots of conversations about it in the community,” psychologist and Therapy for Black Girls founder Joy Harden Bradford, Ph.D., tells Shine.

She's heard from many friends and patients that an open-concept office can be tough to navigate. One main reason why: It creates a need to constantly be on.

“All of us have had bad mornings where we go to work and don’t want to be there, but when you're in an open space, there’s no place to hide," Bradford says. "If you're in a meeting and talking about something difficult, there’s nowhere to regroup (afterward). It makes it difficult for you to manage any ‘off’-ness.”

Of course, some people thrive in an open environment. There’s a reason why they became popular in the first place: Face-to-face contact can spur creativity and better communication. The constant back-and-forth can also help make the workday more interesting.

But for many, creativity requires time spent alone, and the pressure of having to appear productive for 8+ hours each day can be draining. “For people who struggle with anxiety, I think it can be incredibly exhausting,” Bradford says. “Even for people who didn’t struggle with anxiety before… there’s a level of unpredictably. You don’t know who’s going to come up to you.”

'For people who struggle with anxiety, I think it can be incredibly exhausting.'
- Joy Harden Bradford, Ph.D.
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Bradford says she hopes employers will start to realize that open-concept offices might hurt more than they help. But until that happens, there are actions you can take to protect your mental wellbeing in an open office.

1. Create Physical Boundaries

“A lot of people cope by using headphones—it gives the appearance of, I’m here, and I’m present, but I’m busy doing something else,” Bradford says. “Other people talked about having privacy screens (on their computers),” which stop nosy neighbors from keeping tabs on your productivity—and also give you permission to take breaks without feeling guilty.

“Nobody’s at work and working the whole 8 hours,” Bradford says. “Sometimes you just have to goof off and watch the new Beyonce video.”

2. Step Away From Your Desk

Be honest: Is eating lunch at your desk really required?

Open offices can heap on the peer pressure, since you’re constantly aware of what everyone else is doing. If it feels like your colleagues never leave their desks, chances are you won’t either.

Open offices can heap on the peer pressure, since you’re constantly aware of what everyone else is doing.
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Break free from the pack and take your lunch outside, or decompress with a 5-minute stroll around the building. Who knows—you just might start a trend of your own.

3. Address Your Concerns

Pushing back against open floor plans shouldn’t be your responsibility, and not everyone is in the position to speak up. But if your office plan is making it difficult to work—or driving you to start applying elsewhere—you might consider bringing it up with your boss, or an office manager.

“I think it’s something employers need to be aware of,” Bradford says. “I think employers need to be mindful that it’s not a setup that works for people.”

4. Take a Breather at Your Desk

We all get stressed from time to time, and coworkers’ curious eyes can compound it. If you need to decompress but can’t leave your post, try a quick eyes-open breath break.

“One of my favorites is box breathing,” Bradford says. “I also think, depending on your comfort level, it’s OK to tell your supervisor, ‘Hey, I need a moment right now.’”

Not sure where to start? The Shine app has guided breathing exercises you can do subtly at your desk.

5. Reclaim Your Time

If a coworker drops by unexpectedly, remember that you’re not obligated to drop everything and accommodate their needs.

Bradford suggests saying something like, “I’m busy working on XYZ right now—can I catch up with you in an hour?”

6. Go Big and Go Home

“As much as you can, leave work at work,” Bradford says. “A lot of people have a ritual for when they get home—they take off their work clothes, or go the gym (to decompress).”

See if you can create a post-work ritual to help you decompress—for some people, creating a "third space" is helpful.

Beyond physically removing yourself from the office, consider how you'll set mental limits, too. “I think it’s really important to set limits of how much processing (about work) you do in your off hours,” Bradford says. “When you do too much of that, you never get a break.”

If you’re struggling with your mental health, know that seeking help is a strength—not a weakness. If you or someone you care about needs help, text 741741 to talk with a crisis counselor at Crisis Text Line—it's free, confidential, and available at all hours.


Read next: Your Complete Guide to Mental Health Days

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