The office pest. Ugh.

Every office has at least one, it seems. And with the pandemic, the pest factor has only increased, researchers have learned.

Here to explain difficult colleagues — what to do about them and how to avoid becoming one yourself — is Jody Foster, chair of the department of psychiatry at Pennsylvania Hospital and Penn Medicine’s first assistant dean for professionalism at the Perelman School of Medicine. In that position, she is responsible for shepherding initiatives to foster professionalism in the workplace and in schools.

Jody Foster is the chair of the department of psychiatry at Pennsylvania Hospital and Penn Medicine's first assistant dean for professionalism at the Perelman School of Medicine.
Courtesy of Penn Medicine
Jody Foster is the chair of the department of psychiatry at Pennsylvania Hospital and Penn Medicine's first assistant dean for professionalism at the Perelman School of Medicine.
What are some of the problematic behaviors you’re seeing now, when so many are working remotely?

In short, people who had problems before are having more problems now. People who had trouble with short fuses are having more trouble with short fuses. Also, people who had never had trouble, people for whom it took a lot to get their fuses to go off, are finding it harder to avoid conflict.

It’s as though we’ve taken our basic personalities and turned the volume up. Under this level of stress, we are regressing to our less aesthetic selves.

One of the biggest things people are having trouble with while working remotely is the boundary between what’s work and what’s not work. That’s really causing people a lot of stress, a lot of difficulty. Without my commute, without my lunch hour, without my regular start and stop to the work day, how do I institute these boundaries for myself? Is it that I’m at work when I’m in the living room, but I’m not at work when I’m in the kitchen?

We are seeing more anxiety, and more of the things that come with it — people being more controlling, more irritable, and with shorter fuses. Right now, we are seeing a tremendous amount of sleep disturbance. A lot of people have their work area in their bedrooms, which adds to the inability to separate from work at night.

What are the red flags of these inappropriate behaviors?

If the person is already labeled the office pest, you might notice more pesty behavior. Chances are that a difficult person is going to start acting up even more. As I mentioned, even someone who is at baseline not a difficult person might find they have interpersonal difficulties right now.

Red flags might be more anxiety, more nervousness about doing their jobs, more negativity in their attitudes, less interest in interacting with other people. You might see trouble concentrating, complaints of sadness or loneliness. On a virtual platform, you might notice a difference in how people look. Are they coming to a Zoom conversation in a dirty T-shirt instead of work clothes?

How can people react virtually to incidents of unprofessional behavior?

The virtual forum really just adds a new layer of complexity. Recall that the addition of email and texting to our lives separated us from more direct discourse and, as we know, this can lead to miscommunication. The virtual form just adds another layer to that.

So a good tactic is to dispense with roundabout communication and either pick up the phone, or schedule a separate virtual forum, to address the behavior directly.

The great majority of people who behave what we term unprofessionally — roughly 80% of them, research has shown — will simply stop their disturbing behavior once it’s pointed out to them. So it is our duty to provide direct feedback. Maybe call that person afterward and say, “Hey, you were really edgy and harsh on that call today. Is everything OK?” And maybe, “You know, we’ve talked about your edgy behavior in the past and you seem like you’re having a hard time right now. Can I help with anything?”

About another 10% of people will be aware of their behavior and want to stop it, but they don’t know how, and those are the people to whom we can offer resources for intervention and change. So now, it’s just that last 10% of people that really can’t or don’t want to change. And for those people, you must set limits on their problematic behavior.

In the eye of the storm, it’s not always easy to see what you’re doing. Talking about people at the water cooler instead of directly to them is actually unfair.

Virtual examples now could be the person who consistently doesn’t remember to mute audio. Or the person isn’t aware they are chewing loudly into the microphone. It doesn’t mean they’re bad. Maybe they’re just forgetting, or not realizing. The answer to all of this is direct discourse, instead of talking about it or around it.

These are trying times. How can any of us not become the office pest ourselves?

This is a time to be as self-aware as you possibly, possibly, possibly can. It’s so much harder to monitor yourself when you’re remote. Normally, I can tell I’ve said something funny if everyone laughs. It’s so much harder on the virtual platform. If you are getting on a call and you know you feel cranky, then you should be 10,000 times more careful about not letting that come across. That’s how to avoid being the office pest. Self-awareness. Often, the ones who are the office pests have no idea they’re perceived that way.

You’ve said self-care is important, too.

This is a moment in history where self-care is paramount. If we feel testy or crispy or irritable, we should make the assumption that we are conveying it in some way in our interactions. The first step in evaluating a difficult interaction is to check yourself. Did something upsetting really just happen, or am I just upset? The better we know and can observe ourselves, the better poised we are to deal with the office pest, or to accept that we are the office pest, and try to do better.

Work on sleep hygiene. Begin an exercise regimen. Add boundaries to your day. Eat right. Make sure to get outside at least once a day. Connect with friends. And reach out for mental-health support if you need it.

This pandemic is an upsetting experience for all of us. It’s also an opportunity to quiet our lives down a little bit and focus on some of the personal health needs that we might have been ignoring.

If you look at sleep hygiene alone, just developing a practice to quiet your mind at the end of the day and empty your thoughts is something that will be beneficial for your health for evermore.

It’s a time to examine the things that bring you happiness and peace and invest in them a little more. It’s an opportunity to reevaluate time and space in your day, and how various parts of your day make you feel, and to maximize making your days better.