Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the job market has been in a state of flux. Many people changed either their jobs or their mode of work over the last year and a half. Now that lockdown restrictions are easing in many places, employees who had adjusted to work-from-home (WFH) arrangements are now being called to return to the office. It’s understandable that many of us face anxiety about going back to the office.
Ironically, while a “return to normal” may have been what many of us were looking forward to, we now find that it doesn’t feel as alluring as it once did. Many who got used to the “freedom” of working from home are questioning office re-entry. In addition, post-pandemic social anxiety has taken root, causing us to question how we may fare in a return to in-person work.
In short, now that we’ve accustomed ourselves to a new way of working and living, many of us are experiencing understandable anxiety about going back to the office.
The Pandemic and Mental Health
There’s no question that the pandemic and the associated social and economic impacts have, on the whole, negatively affected our collective mental health.
During the pandemic,
- adults reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression rose from 11% to 41%,
- alcohol and substance abuse cases rose by 12%, and
- young adults became more likely to report substance use (25% vs. 13%) and suicidal thoughts (26% vs. 11%).
During rolling lockdowns, increased isolation has merely exacerbated poor mental health outcomes. This has been particularly true for individuals who lost their jobs or spent long stretches of time working from home.
Without times of regular social interaction, people report increased anxiety and stress.
Symptoms of anxiety and stress can manifest themselves in a variety of ways, including:
- Seemingly unrelated physical problems (headaches, stomach aches, skin problems)
- Difficulty concentrating and/or making decisions
- Elevated levels of anger and frustration
- Increased use of alcohol/substances
- Nightmares and/or sleeplessness
- Noticeable changes to appetite
- Mental fog
If you are experiencing these symptoms, be sure to build healthy habits into your routine to help combat them.
- Eat nourishing food on a regular schedule
- Drink plenty of water
- Get plenty of fresh air
- Exercise regularly
- Connect with others
- Make time for rest and sleep
Please remember that if you are struggling, it is not your fault. Help is always available.
Reasons for Anxiety Upon Returning to the Office
Because the pandemic led to an uptick in worry and stress, one might assume that as the pandemic recedes, collective anxieties will ease.
The reality, of course, is more complex.
While lockdowns and WFH arrangements led to one type of work anxiety, returning to in-person work leads to an entirely different set of issues.
Anxiety about going back to the office is real, and if you find panic attacks setting in at the mere thought, you’re not alone.
Fortunately, once we learn to recognize the stressors that are in play, we can deal with them.
If you haven’t returned to in-person work yet, you may be wondering why people might experience increased office anxiety upon returning to work. After all, didn’t these same people work in offices before the coronavirus pandemic? Why are they suddenly experiencing so much anxiety about going back to what should be familiar territory?
To help make sense of the situation, we reached out to Dr. Brian Wind, a clinical psychologist and Chief Clinical Officer at JourneyPure. As the former co-chair of the American Psychological Association’s Advisory Committee for Colleague Assistance and a current professor at Vanderbilt University, Dr. Wind has unique insight on why returning to in-person work will likely prove stressful.
“Many people have already adjusted to the new normal of working from home and communicating with co-workers largely via video conferences and phone calls,” he tells us. “Going back to work would mean another process of adjustment to in-person interactions with other people.”
This makes total sense, and if that were the only layer we were dealing with, that alone could be enough to elevate stress levels.
According to Dr. Wind, however, other factors are exacerbating the anxiety:
“Additionally, isolation has meant less non-verbal communication, whether through eye contact or body language.”
“It’s possible for people to feel overwhelmed when they go back to work and start sensing all of these non-verbal cues that weren’t as obvious.”
“Some people may also have fears over the safety of their physical health if they return to work and interact with co-workers and bosses in the office. Even if they may not be in one of the vulnerable groups, they may have family members or close friends who are vulnerable to COVID-19, which can heighten their fears of contracting the virus.”
With all these potential stressors in the mix, it’s vital that we all take practical steps to care for ourselves and our co-workers, cooperating to help manage our anxiety about going back to the office after lockdown.
4 Tips for Managing Anxiety About Returning to In-Person Work
Office workers returning to in-person work after a year of remote and WFH situations are expressing a wide variety of feelings about going back to the office. While some are eager to get out of the house and socialize daily, others are considering what they may have to give up to return to the office.
Workers have expressed some positive expectations, including:
- looking forward to connecting with colleagues,
- having more structure in their day, and
- gaining access to tools and resources.
At the same time, there are potential losses to be mourned:
- Returning to commutes and packed elevators
- Disorienting uptick in face-to-face communication
- Spending prolonged time around colleagues who are still taking public health concerns more/less seriously than they are
- Less potential time with family and friends
- Loss of autonomy and free time
Without a framework to process these feelings, they could prove difficult to manage.
Managing Complicated Feelings
While there isn’t necessarily one “right way” to manage anxiety about your work environment, there are a few tips that can help as you return to in-person work.
Tip 1: Name your feelings.
We can’t process feelings we haven’t yet acknowledged with ourselves or others. Take time to check in with yourself. Consider journaling your thoughts and feelings and sharing them with a mentor, friend, or trusted colleague.
Tip 2: Communicate with your supervisors and colleagues.
If you’re feeling anxious about returning to the office, chances are high that you’re not the only one. Everyone is likely wondering versions of the same basic questions.
At the heart of all these questions is this core concern: How exactly will daily life at the company operate now that so much has changed? Will we really be returning to “business as usual?”
By connecting with your associates about how you’re feeling, you can share your concerns and work together to create a safe environment in which you’re all more comfortable.
Tip 3: Practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness meditation has been shown to ease anxiety and mental stress. Breathing exercises (which we will discuss in more detail below) can also help calm and soothe. Building healthy practices in these areas can considerably lessen your anxiety about going back to the office.
Tip 4: Reach out for help.
Reaching out when you need help isn’t always easy, but it’s much harder to try to deal with mental health concerns when we’re by ourselves. Even if you’re not sure what to ask for, talk to someone you trust and express how you’re feeling. Seeking professional help for more sophisticated tools in your healthcare toolkit is also a wise self-care move.
Sometimes our feelings are easier to manage if we know we’re not going to be plunged immediately into an unfamiliar (and potentially unsafe) environment.
Easing Back In?
Not everyone is comfortable with an immediate return to in-person office work; and fortunately, not everyone will be forced to do so. Some companies are allowing their employees to ease back in with full-time in-person work with flex and hybrid arrangements.
Even if your company hasn’t explicitly made a gradual transition an option, you can always bring this up with your HR department.
Although contacting HR can feel awkward and scary, here are a few tips to ensure the interaction goes smoothly and accomplishes what you hope without needlessly stirring the pot.
- Know whom to contact. While large companies have an entire HR department to handle such issues, startups and boutique companies may just have one person handling HR. While the process of contacting HR and submitting a complaint, proposal, or request may vary, the guidelines for your organization can generally be found in the employee handbook or code of conduct.
- Go by the book. Whatever you do, be sure to follow company procedures to the letter and handle the request professionally. While it may feel less daunting simply to shoot off a casual email to your favorite HR team member or raise the suggestion at the end of an unrelated Zoom meeting, failing to follow the proper procedures can get your proposal rejected out of hand.
- Make an appeal. Striking the right tone is critical. Framing your request as an appeal rather than a demand can go a long way toward ensuring success.
Whether you find yourself easing back in with full time in-person work or jumping back with both feet, you’ll want to follow practical psychological advice to survive the transition and thrive at work.
Practical Psychological Advice
When you’re experiencing office anxiety, be sure to take some practical steps to handle the strain.
Climb the Ladder of Inference
Some anxieties, on close examination, may not be rooted in actual reality. Instead, they can find their beginnings in faulty assumptions. Our beliefs have a big effect on how we select from reality, and can lead us to ignore the true facts altogether. Soon we are literally jumping to conclusions – by missing facts and skipping steps in the reasoning process. (Mind Tools)
In order to identify anxieties rooted outside reality, we can make use of the Ladder of Inference. This analytical tool helps us work from a position of reality and facts toward proven beliefs and resulting actions.
Reframe Your Thoughts
Therapists agree that reframing some of our more existential anxieties can help us cope with them more effectively.
Rather than assuming our thoughts (and therefore the conclusions stemming from them) are automatically true, we can reframe them by fact-checking and questioning their validity. When we do this, our anxieties may no longer hold the same power over us.
“Catastrophizing” is what happens when we imagine the worst-case scenario and then assume it to be true. When we do this, we lock ourselves into a mindset that can hinder our growth. Unfortunately, many of us don’t recognize when we’re catastrophizing; therefore, we cut ourselves off from the resources we need to break free.
While there are those for whom therapy, medication, and mindfulness meditation may be required to break out of chronic catastrophizing, there are others who can learn to recognize when they’re in the danger zone and pivot to reframing their catastrophic thoughts.
Take a Deep Breath
In addition to helping us understand increased work anxiety, Dr. Wind recommended some exercises to help manage stress, including regular deep breathing exercises.
When you start feeling anxious where your heart starts racing and you feel dizzy, do a deep breathing exercise. Breathe in for four seconds, hold it for four seconds, and breathe out for eight seconds. Do this at least five times or however long it takes to feel better. This focuses your attention on your breath and takes your mind away from your anxious thoughts.
It may sound like a small thing, but finding quiet moments in the day to check in with yourself, reorient, and breathe can make a big difference in managing your office anxiety as you return to in-person work.
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