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Anxious about returning to the workplace? This article explores different ways you can ease yourself back into office working.

The COVID-19 pandemic abruptly changed the way we live our lives, and many of us have now been working from home for over a year. With the vaccine roll-out progressing quickly and restrictions gradually easing, we are beginning to see the light at the end of what has been a very long and dark tunnel.

During the last year, we have all dreamed of life returning to “normal”, but now that this is in sight, many of us are beginning to feel anxious about the changes that inevitably lie ahead. For the majority of us, home is a “safe place”, and is a total contrast to the thought of venturing out and using public transport. Spending time with people outside our own household, moving through crowded spaces, and working from the office or other workspace, has begun to play in our minds, and is fast becoming a source of anxiety. There will, of course, be changes to the workspace we remember, with possibly a raft of new health and safety considerations, such as social distancing rules and other changing restrictions; this will feel like a lot to take in initially.

Others see going back to work as a positive change that will allow us to gain back some independence, and ensure a better work/life balance in having a separate location for home and work.

How are you feeling about going back to the office?

Everyone is different – some people are excitedly looking forward to returning to a managed office environment, while others are experiencing varied levels of apprehension.

It seems that people can be split into four fairly even groups. Which group do you fall into?

  1. Those who are eager to return to the office full-time, and gain back some independence and separation between work and home life.
  2. Those who are happy to return to the office, but aren’t in any rush.
  3. Those looking to change their work routine into flexibly working from home, for example by splitting the week between 2-3 days from home, and 2-3 days in the office.
  4. Those that would be happier to work from home permanently, whether that be part or full time.

Preparation is key to an easy transition

So, what can you do if you are worried about returning to the workplace? Preparation is key!

The fear of the unknown can contribute to anxiety, so preparation will help to reduce worries of going back to the workplace. Below we have listed some tips that may help you:

Communicate with your employer

  • If you are feeling anxious, speak with your line manager and let them know about the concerns that you have about your return to work.
  • Your employer will be completing regular risk assessments to ensure that appropriate safety measures are put in place.
  • Make yourself aware of the policies and measures being implemented by your company (e.g. social distancing rules, flexible working arrangements, testing requirements, etc.) to deal with the changes brought about by the pandemic, and to help keep employees safe.

Consider a staggered return to the workplace

  • Nudge your way out of your comfort zone by looking into a staggered return to the workplace in the first week back.
  • If you can, start with one or two days in the workplace at first, so that it doesn’t feel too overwhelming – and build from there.

Put your new routine in place before you go back to the workplace

  • You may find it helps to develop your new routine before you go back to the workplace. So, a couple of weeks before you are due to go back, start to adjust your bedtime and wake time to the times required to incorporate your morning/end of day commute.
  • Develop your new routine of starting & finishing work and taking lunch breaks, all at regular times.

Take your time to integrate yourself back into a less restricted life

  • As humans, we can find change difficult and often stressful. Keep things simple at first, so that you don’t become overwhelmed.
  • Just because restrictions are being lifted, doesn’t mean that you HAVE to go to a shopping centre, or meet with friends for a drink or a meal outside. If you don’t feel ready yet, take your time and do things when you feel comfortable.
  • Don’t expect to be fully up-to-speed on your first day back at work. You may need some time to get used to a new, and possibly different, routine once again.

Put some thought into your commute

  • It may be that the thought of the commute is the cause of some of your anxiety, so take some time to think about what would make you feel more comfortable.
  • Look at other ways to travel that decrease your anxiety of travelling on public transport. For example, could you walk from the train station rather than getting on the tube?
  • If you are only travelling to work two or three days a week, maybe it is possible to find an alternative method of travel that may be longer, but reduces the need for public transport, such as cycling.
  • Think about changing your work times to travel in earlier or later to avoid the rush hour.

Prepare a “to-do” list

  • If you have lots of tasks that you need to do buzzing around in your head in preparation for going back to the office workplace, making a to-do list is a good way to prepare and calm yourself, and will also help you to structure your day when you return.
  • Try to make sure that your to-do list is realistic to avoid overloading yourself and giving yourself more stress.
  • You may find it helpful to grade each task in order of importance, and work on the most essential points first.
  • There are many great resources to help you organise yourself, so you may wish to look into what is available.

Seek professional help for anxiety, if you feel you need to

  • Some of us need an extra bit of help when it comes to managing symptoms of anxiety, and that’s okay. If you feel your anxiety is affecting you significantly over a period of several weeks, and doesn’t seem to lift with self-help measures, it is important that you seek professional help and support.
  • Check what mental health support is offered by your employer. If your organisation has a Mental Health First Aider team it may be helpful to seek advice from one of them, or contact Human Resources or your Line Manager; they will be able to advise you on what further support is available through your company, such as an Employee Assistance Programme or Private Medical Insurance.
  • You may want to talk to your GP, as they will be able to provide you with advice and refer you for specialist treatment if appropriate.

Remember to be mindful of how others are feeling

Now that we have covered some of the essential tips that might help you in preparing to go back to the office, let us conclude by discussing the importance of being mindful towards your colleagues. It is important to remember that as we go back to the office, whether we are happy or anxious about it, colleagues may feel very different about the experience.

Each of us have a unique set of feelings, beliefs and behaviours, which are shaped by numerous factors, including our age, gender, work, education, values, culture, beliefs, experience, achievements, relationships, family situation and upbringing. All of these unique factors have moulded the way we look and experience our world.

This means that we all see things slightly differently from our own individual perspectives, react differently to what life presents to us and treat ourselves and others differently. Having this appreciation that we are all unique in the way that we make sense of the world is a great starting point in helping to understand and manage our own personal stress and anxiety.

Not recognising the fact that we all have our own personal frame of reference can lead to us being somewhat opinionated and narrow minded. If you have an appreciation of the factors that influence your own viewpoint, you will be in a better position to set your views aside and support someone if they ask you for help with their problems.

We need to listen non-judgmentally when trying to help others, particularly when stress and anxiety is heightened during these changing times as we prepare to re-enter the workspace.

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