Here’s how you can manage return-to-work anxiety

As some countries and states experience a fall in COVID-19 cases, employees are strongly encouraged to return to the office. However, after a long year of online meetings, working in pyjamas and being isolated from the team, employees can develop return-to-work anxiety.

Return-to-work anxiety is even more apparent in individuals who prefer their own space and have gotten used to the work from home arrangements. Working from home has become the norm during the COVID-19 pandemic. The sudden switch from this arrangement back to office re-entry has caused some employees stress rather than relief.

While some fear the idea of having to small talk with colleagues, some dread spending more time commuting which can increase their chances of getting infected. It is very normal for employees to experience return-to-work anxiety given that it is such a big and sudden change.

This means that employees and their families will need to find a new normal to balance their work and family life. While this may sound challenging, we will be giving you some tips on how you can manage your return-to-work anxiety!

What is return-to-work anxiety?

Before we delve into the tips, let’s first understand what exactly is return-to-work anxiety.

Re-entry anxiety is a new phenomenon that occurs when individuals feel anxious or stressed about going back to the workplace. Often, individuals feel overwhelmed and stressed when big changes happen in a short time frame.

In this case, return-to-work anxiety is more commonly experienced now, given that offices are gradually reopening and companies are encouraging employees to return to the office. The change from working in the comfort of their own homes to returning to the office with the need to socialise has increased anxiety in some people.

As it was a difficult change from going to the office to working from home during the pandemic, changing back to the office can cause a break in structure and regimen. Return-to-work anxiety also manifests when individuals do not feel physically safe before they can return to work.

During lockdown, these individuals have been socially isolating themselves and eventually got used to their own company and spending time alone. However, the need to break this normality and socialise with others at work may be daunting.

Symptoms of return-to-work anxietyA man at work with his hand on his head due to return to work anxiety symptoms.

Symptoms of return-to-work anxiety include little or low participation in face to face meetings, isolating oneself to their own workspace, skipping workplace gatherings or socialising events. Individuals also often feel overwhelmed, become short-tempered and experience feelings of fear and helplessness.

Besides return-to-work anxiety, individuals who are mandated to return to the office can experience adjustment disorder. This occurs when individuals feel increasingly emotional and distressed than normal in response to a sudden change in events.

While it may seem that return-to-work anxiety is a minor issue, it can affect employees’ productivity. When an individual experiences the above symptoms, he/she may find it challenging to focus and manage their day-to-day tasks in the office.

Ways to manage return-to-work anxiety

You maybe find yourself showing some symptoms of return-to-work anxiety, but fret not, let me share some tips to help you with your anxiety!

Recognise that it is normal to feel anxious

You need to recognise that it is normal for you to feel overwhelmed with sudden and unexpected changes. Adjusting to a new norm is not an easy thing to do. Just like how we took some time to adapt to COVID-19 lockdown rules, we will all take time to re-adjust back to life with fewer COVID-19 restrictions!

After having zoom meetings for a year, you must adjust your expectations for face-to-face meetings. While it can be challenging to deal with expectations from yourself or your superior, you must remember that it is okay to feel vulnerable and overwhelmed.

Remind yourself that your reactions and fears are normal, and try not to be too harsh on yourself. After all, we are still trying to navigate our daily lives amidst a pandemic.

Create new habits and routinesTwo women laughing as they write on a whiteboard to create new back to work anxiety habits.

Over the past year, we have gotten used to staying home and only seeing those people in our household. New routines would have developed, and we would have gotten used to our “I don’t need to meet people” routine. Thus, the idea of breaking this routine and making new ones can be intimidating.

Thus, you need to create new habits that can eventually help you get familiarised with the routine of going back to the office to help manage your return-to-work anxiety. For some, small steps such as taking public transport to work during non-peak hours can help them acclimate to being in crowds.

You can also start going to the office 1-2 days a week or even going in for a meeting and then going home after. These baby steps can help you overcome your return-to-work anxiety and give you some sense of control.

Request for workplace flexibility

If you work in a relatively flexible company on returning to the office, you can try asking your HR or manager if you can come in for a few days a week until you feel comfortable enough to come in every day.

Talk to them about your fears and concerns about adjusting to the office again. This would mean that you will first be doing hybrid work, a mixture of working from home and the office. Once you feel comfortable enough, you can then return to the office full time.

Keep updated on measures taken by your workplace

For some individuals, they are more concerned and anxious about increasing their likelihood of getting infected. In this case, you need to keep updated on the measures taken by your workplace to ensure that the office is thoroughly sanitised.

Return-to-work anxiety can be managed when employees feel safer in their workplace. For instance, offices with extra hand sanitisers around and more cleaners to ensure common areas are regularly cleaned can help ease fears that employees may have.

If you do not see your workplace taking any extra measures to ensure hygiene and cleanliness, it is imperative that you talk to your office or facility manager.

Seek helpA therapist talking to a man about managing back to work anxiety.

If the above tips are still not working for you, you should approach a professional therapist for advice and help. Having 1-1 conversations with a therapist can help you be in tune with your feelings and emotions. This can help you better manage your return-to-work anxiety.

You can also look for support from your family and friends if you feel uncomfortable speaking to a stranger.

In summary

Switching from working from home to going to the office can be daunting for some people. Return-to-work anxiety is prevalent in individuals who have gotten used to having their own space at home.

If one does not manage the anxiety and stress, it can affect their daily lives and productivity levels. However, if you follow the tips given in this article, I am sure it will help you in one way or another!

Min Yee
Min Yee
Min Yee is a Marketing Analyst at Zipline. Other than writing articles about technology and the aged care industry, she loves a good cup of matcha latte while sitting at a cafe people-watching.
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