Anyone who has made it through middle school knows the desire to fit in with one’s peers is strong. And while we may like to think we outgrow that in adulthood, research shows other people can still significantly influence our behavior. Even when we don’t change our behavior based on those around us, we may still be uncomfortably aware of standing out.
For the lone holdouts still masking in their office or workplace, the feeling of being the odd one out is, to some extent, unavoidable.
“This isn’t like being the only person in the office who doesn’t drink,” says Anna,* who is a 34-year-old recovering alcoholic living in Georgia. “In my office, drinking only happens at work socials and that kind of thing. Everyone in my workplace can see that I’m the only person still masking, all day, every day.”
People who are still masking at work well after mask mandates dropped can feel caught between being the odd one out and protecting their health, those of their loved ones, or people they live with or come in close contact with. But according to Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist and Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University’s School of Medicine in St. Louis, there are ways to make it easier to handle.
The mental health challenges of being the only workplace masker
Gold tells Inverse that it’s human nature to make a lot of assumptions about what other people are thinking in certain situations.
“We’re social creatures, so when we’re in a situation where we’re doing something very different [from what others are doing], we do a lot of mind-reading about what other people must be thinking,” she says. “We don’t always stop to consider if our assumptions are rational.”
Anna, who asked that Inverse not use her real name, says, “it’s really hard not to feel like people are judging you or think you’re overreacting to the Covid threat. I haven’t gotten any comments, but I’ve definitely gotten some weird looks and rolled eyes.”
Gold says the way masks have become politicized over the past two and a half years doesn’t help.
“I think [that politicization] probably adds to the tension,” she says. “Even if you’re just trying to get through the day and do what works for you, now there’s this implied assessment that comes with this topic in particular.”
Mike, who also asked Inverse not to use his real name, says he is the only consistently masking employee at the athletic club where he works. He says the “dissonance” among his non-masking coworkers can be frustrating.
“It's that weird paradox that you kind of get everywhere where everyone says we should do everything we can to combat Covid, or that not enough is being done to combat Covid, and then their masks are off because they don’t feel like wearing them,” he tells Inverse. “I assume that's not just what I'm encountering; it seems to be kind of normal.”
Mike, who contracted Covid earlier in the summer despite being vaccinated and boosted, says it “knocked him on his ass” for two weeks. For him, masking is “survival mode.”
“I have a friend who got sick just a little before I did, and he ran marathons. And for weeks, he couldn't go up his stairs,” Mike says. “That’s terrifying. So at work, where I have to be face to face with parents and families, I just don’t know how much trust I can put in everyone all the time.”
How to get comfortable with being the only workplace masker
An interesting dichotomy occurs when the thing that makes you feel safer from a health standpoint also makes you feel more uncomfortable from a social or interpersonal standpoint.
Anna says she’s not about to let some “social weirdness” with her coworkers change behavior she feels is important to her health. “But I’d still rather wear the mask and not have any weirdness with my coworkers,” she says.
Gold cautions against making too many assumptions about what others are thinking.
“We don't know what everybody's thinking or why everybody made certain decisions,” she says. “So if you can try to catch yourself in those thoughts and realize they’re just increasing your anxiety and that you really can only control yourself, you can’t control what other people think or do, I think that’s an easier way of approaching things.”
At the end of the day, Gold says, whether or not to mask is a personal choice and should be treated as such.
“Ultimately, it’s just a mask, and wearing it is just a personal choice,” she says. “If that's what you want to do for yourself, and you feel good about it, then you should feel good about it, right?”
Gold recognizes that can be easier said than done.
“It can be hard for us to realize that people's reactions are truly about them, especially when they’re hurtful,” she says. “But really, what people think and feel usually is about their own stuff. So you have to ask yourself, is it possible to see that and let that be true?”
How non-masking employees can make masking employees comfortable
If you’re not wearing a mask at work but want to be supportive of any employees who are, it may be tempting to be overly supportive of the masking employee. That may not be helpful, says Gold.
“I don’t think you need to give anyone a diatribe about why you’re not wearing a mask or why you’re okay with them wearing one,” she says. “I actually think, in this case, it’s probably unhelpful. It may call attention to a situation that would have otherwise been fine.”
Similarly, you shouldn't assume any awkwardness between masked and non-masked employees is the result of tension around that issue. If you feel like your interactions with a coworker have suddenly become uncomfortable, there are ways to ask about that without assuming you know the reason for the change.
“You could say, ‘I'm noticing our interactions are a little bit different now. Is it something you want to talk about?’ You don’t have to say, ‘Hey, is it because you're in a mask and I'm not?’ Because you never know,” Gold says. “There are a million reasons that can contribute to why someone acts a certain way.”