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As restrictions are lifted, you might be feeling anxious about returning to the office.

The return to the office is a topic that is currently occupying many people’s minds and conversations, along with all the other uncertainties of these times.

If you worked in an office pre-pandemic, you will of course, be familiar with what office life is all about. But we all know it will be different going back. The environment both in and outside of our offices will have changed considerably since we left it all those many months ago. It’s not surprising that many of us are feeling a little anxious.

Be prepared for changes. Inside the office, there will be a whole set of new health and safety rules to get our heads round, what we can and cannot do, where we work, and how we are allowed to meet and interact. Outside the office, be prepared for a changed landscape with the disappearance of many of our favourite watering holes, go-to lunch stops, and handy amenity stores. Whilst we were all banished to working from home, many of the trusted businesses that thrived on us being around during the working day have been forced to shut, as there’s simply been no customers around to serve!

Creating new habits

As we change our routine, we will shortly have to create new habits and adapt to a very different environment to the home working set up we have become accustomed to over these many months of lockdown.

There will of course be some great positives, like spending less time on Zoom and having real people interactions. However, for some of us, the change back to the office environment after working from home for so long maybe a jolt to the system.

Nurturing a flexible mindset

If you find yourself feeling anxious and getting a bit ‘stuck’ about the whole return to the office issue, try and support yourself by developing techniques for nurturing a flexible mindset.

Nurturing flexibility in the way you think, is known to be one of the key ‘pillars’ in building personal resilience. Being a flexible thinker enables you to be more positive and creative towards navigating any difficulties you feel you have to face, regarding working back in the office.

HOW TO DEVELOP A FLEXIBLE MINDSET

Developing a flexible mindset relies on two key areas of psychology: Positive Reframing and Open-mindedness.

Positive Reframing is a thinking technique that changes the way you may view situations that may be causing you worry and anxiety, such as returning to the office, and re-framing it with a new positive perspective. Research has revealed that positive reframing results in reducing our personal sense of threat, which has the effect of lowering our stress and anxiety levels. This process allows us to channel our thoughts positively towards influencing a good outcome.

Re-framing any negative thoughts we have about returning to the office will positively influence how we feel about it, how we prepare for it, and handle it when it happens. In effect, we become less emotionally charged, and become more mindful of handling the change in a constructive and self-supporting way.

Use the re-framing technique to view the ‘return’ as just a short-term period of transition allowing your mind to take the broader perspective or longer view. This will help you feel less threatened and more accepting of the return to the workspace.

Developing Open Mindedness – Developing an open and optimistic outlook when you are considering the logistics of returning to the office will help you all round. Being open minded will give you the flexibility to consider multiple different ways of viewing a situation, and how you can react to it.
Charles Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” is now widely interpreted as being about adaptability.

“It is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”
Professor Leon C Megginson

You only have to look at the last year to realise that humans are amazingly adaptable. Have the confidence to know that just like you managed lockdown, you will manage the change back to the new working environment.

Connect to your Inner Courage

For many, fear has been a dominant emotion since the start of the pandemic.  Fear can hijack the mind, preventing us from thinking clearly and evaluating risks in a balanced way.  When we are anxious, we might focus exclusively on threats and blow them out of proportion. The fear we experience may become a source of suffering and distress in itself.

If you feel fearful, try to analyse the risks you face in a calm, clear, and logical way, and ensure that you aren’t confusing justified dangers with less significant concerns.

To help relax and calm you, try deep-breathing techniques whenever you feel your fears arising. Breathing exercises have been shown to help reduce stress and anxiety and, if practiced regularly, will help your mental and physical wellbeing. Once you become aware of how to harness the power of your breath through simple exercises, you will be able to call on it as an invaluable ‘go to’ tool that you can use anywhere as part of your stress and anxiety relieving armoury.

BREATHING EXERCISES

Simple breathing techniques could help you find internal courage and calm your mind. As you settle your nervous system, see if you can let go of your fear and focus on the positive opportunities and positive outcomes that lie ahead. You’ll find many breathing exercises by searching the internet, but here’s a simple breathing technique to get you started:

Sama Vritti (‘Box’ or ‘square’ breathing)

This is a very simple exercise that can be used to focus your mind and cut out mental chatter. The aim of this exercise is to breath for the same count for each step of the breathing process.

Sama Vritti (‘Box’ or ‘square’ breathing) exerciseGet into a comfortable position while sitting up straight. Be sure to relax your face, jaw, neck and shoulders. Try to keep your upper body still through the whole exercise and expand your stomach as you breathe in.

Breathe in through your nose, inhaling for the count of 4, hold your breath for the count of 4, exhale through your nose for the count of 4, and then hold again for the count of 4. Repeat this process for a minimum of 12 rounds, as long as you feel comfortable to do so.

Focus on the positives of returning to the workplace

To support your mindset, try and focus on considering all the things that you do want and what you are looking forward to about returning to the workplace. Focusing on the positives over this transitional period, such as more freedom, a good return to the office and reconnecting with your colleagues in-person, will help you navigate through these times of change.

It is likely that there will be some good things about going back to the office that you have not yet considered. Safety guidelines will be in place to help protect you and make sure you can work successfully. Public transport will be cleaned more regularly and extended to accommodate socially distanced seating, and for many there will be more flexibility for commuting times.

Many of your colleagues may share your reservations around returning to the office; you will not be alone if you are feeling anxious. Connecting positively with your co-workers about emotional challenges can bring a sense of camaraderie and boost the emotions of yourself and others.

Be mindful of how you have changed over this year away, and reflect that your colleagues may also have changed.

Over a year has passed since the pandemic began. Changes to the way you perceive your life and the world around you are to be expected and it’s important to reflect on this. Perhaps this year away from the office has made you more tolerant of ‘what is’, more grateful of what you have, more accepting of uncertainty, and more aware of your surroundings? Whatever the changes in you are, be mindful of them.

Your colleagues will have experienced a completely different set of personal circumstances that will be unique to them. Reflecting on your own experiences, and sharing these, can be a meaningful and supportive way of re-connecting with colleagues.

Be kind to yourself and give yourself time to adapt to the new routine

When feeling anxious and unsure, nurturing self-compassion is very important.

We are creatures of habit and any modification to one’s lifestyle or routine is a stress to the system. Returning to the workplace will undoubtedly be challenging for many, as the prospect will jumpstart anxiety in our thinking process as we are alerted to possible risks ahead.

You can take practical steps to make the situation less demanding, such as giving yourself sufficient time to readjust to commuting or arranging an informal visit before your first day back. While going through the transition, try to accept any unfamiliar emotions, and prioritise being kind to yourself. Ideas of self-care are often viewed as self-indulgent, but caring for your body and mind is one of the best ways to eliminate any anxieties you may be experiencing.

Praise yourself

Not to be confused with self-kindness, self-praise can be a great strategy to help manage stress levels through any times of transition.
People are often overcritical of themselves and focus on achievements rather than efforts. It is important to recognise the effort you have put in, and that success is rarely all or nothing.

Try to develop a mindset of being positive to yourself as you would be to a valued colleague or someone you care deeply about? Instead of punishing yourself for not having fully and quickly achieved a goal, change this thinking into congratulating yourself for your effort, just as you might praise the attempts of a close friend. Try and practice this new way of thinking every time an opportunity presents.

Try to employ non-judgemental listening and acceptance of others’ views

Everyone will have varying levels of comfort with the return to office life. This may extend to your friends and family, as well as your co-workers. Without meaning to, we might unintentionally judge people who see things differently from ourselves.

Some people may want to adhere to the guidance more than others. Sensitively discussing these differences can be very helpful. Try to avoid being judgemental and recognise that not everybody feels the same; be aware that these conversations might be difficult for some people.

MIND MANAGEMENT: Putting it all together

In summary, there are several key focuses that can help you nurture a more positive mindset during the approaching transitional period of change:

  • Develop a flexible mindset – nurture positive reframing and open mindedness
  • Focus on the positives of returning to the workplace
  • Connect to your courage!
  • Be mindful of changes in yourself and others
  • Be kind to yourself
  • Give yourself time
  • Praise yourself
  • Listen to others
  • Be accepting and non-judgmental of perspectives that don’t match yours.

This period may not be easy for you, but trying these techniques may help support you. If you feel you need help with feelings of anxiety, and you feel that you are not coping, it is important that you seek professional help.

Familiarise yourself with what support is available from your workplace. Contact your Human Resources or your Line Manager for guidance. You may have Mental Health First Aiders, Employee Assistance programmes, and other sources of workplace support.

If you are reluctant to seek help in the workplace, contacting your GP can be a helpful route to putting you in contact with further specialist support.

Links to further resources on anxiety and panic attacks:

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