Back to the Office Anxiety? Here are Ways to Keep Your Fears in Check
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way people work. Many workers have continued to go into their workplaces throughout the pandemic, adopting new health and safety measures. Others have found ways to work from home and may not have seen their coworkers or customers in person for many months. As the number of people who are vaccinated grows and the incidence of COVID-19 in the community drops, many workplaces that have been closed or operating with limited staff will reopen.
You may be excited or apprehensive about returning to your workplace—or likely a bit of both. That’s natural and to be expected. Shifting to work from home was a big change and returning to the workplace will be another. Here are some ideas that can help make this next adjustment a bit easier.
Understand what will be expected of you
Familiarize yourself with your employer’s plans, including any new procedures or schedule changes. Masks may be required. Barriers may be installed between workstations. There may be rules about gathering in groups for meetings or breaks. Schedules may be altered to keep the number of people in the workplace down, with some people coming in and some people working from home on assigned days. Listen to and read directives carefully so you know what to expect and what will be expected of you.
Know how to protect yourself and others from COVID-19
Be sure to continue following the recommended measures to prevent spreading the virus, both at work and on your commute to and from work. Even people who are vaccinated can come down with—and spread—COVID-19, though the risk is greatly reduced.
Be sure to follow your employer’s instructions, as dictated by your state’s regulatory entities, for workplace safety, on maintaining physical distance from coworkers and customers, wearing a mask, washing your hands often, and disinfecting surfaces that other people touch. Stay home when you are sick, even if you have only mild symptoms. Stay home, too, if a member of your household has symptoms of COVID-19. You can learn more about protecting yourself and others from COVID-19 on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website.
Consider your risk
Are you or another member of your household at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19. If so, you may need to take extra precautions. Check with your manager or your human resources (HR) representative to explore how your work might be adjusted to accommodate your increased risk. How might you work in a way that minimizes your contact with other people?
Be clear with your manager about your caregiving responsibilities
If you have children at home who can’t attend school or child care because of changes related to the pandemic, let your manager know. Explain your situation—that school is operating virtually or your child care is closed—and see if you can work out an arrangement that allows you to continue to work without putting your children at risk. The same is true if you are caring for an older or infirm family member and the care you used to rely on is no longer available.
Ask questions if anything is unclear to you or feels unsafe
Don’t be afraid to reach out to your manager or HR representative if you have questions or concerns about the transition to in-person work. Asking questions to understand the details of changing work arrangements can help you feel more confident that your employer has planned the transition carefully. If you have ideas for improving your employer’s plans, suggest them to your manager. Becoming involved with the transition can make you feel more in control of the situation, and your ideas might help make work safer and more efficient for everyone.
Take time to gather any work equipment that you need to bring back to the office. Make sure this is organized and ready to go the night before so that you can grab it on your way out the door the next morning. Be sure to include things you might need to protect yourself, such as masks and hand sanitizer. Since you may be combining work in the office and work at home for a while, organizing a work bag for yourself could keep you from forgetting something important. Plan, too, for how you will get to work safely, and any special arrangements you may need to make for your children or other family members.
Allow yourself extra time
The schedule you followed before the pandemic may be too tight now. Allow extra time for your commute if public transportation is operating at reduced capacity. Factor in time for any new drop-off procedures at your childcare provider. You might need extra time if symptom screening is conducted at the entrance to your workplace or if elevators are operating at reduced capacity. You’ll also want some extra time to settle back into your workspace.
Be patient with yourself and others as you adjust to a changed work environment
When you return to the workplace it probably won’t feel like “getting back to normal.” With masks, physical distancing, and restrictions on gathering in groups, your workplace may feel different and possibly a little uncomfortable. After months of pandemic isolation and wariness, you may have changed, too. You may become anxious when others come close to you, or tire more easily from social interactions. Even if you have no hesitancy about jumping back into the social engagement of in-person work life, some of your coworkers may. Be patient with yourself and others as you adjust to the new work environment.
Find healthy ways to deal with stress and anxiety
If you find yourself becoming tense and anxious, either in anticipation of your return to the workplace or while you are there, practice a stress-management technique that works for you. You might try the following:
- Deep breathing—Slowly breathe in through your nose to fill your lungs, then slowly exhale through your mouth. Concentrate on your breathing, rather than your worries, and feel yourself relax.
- Progressive muscle relaxation—Relax each muscle group one by one, moving from your toes to your head. You might massage the muscles that get particularly tight when you are tense, which might be in your jaw, neck, or shoulders.
- Meditation—While sitting comfortably, focus your mind on just one thing. That might be your breathing, a calming word you repeat to yourself, or an object directly in front of you. With practice, you’ll learn to shut out distractions so that meditation leaves you calm and refreshed.
- Mindfulness—Focus your mind on the present moment—what is happening right now, the sounds and smells around you, how your body feels—and accept it as it is. By concentrating on the here and now, rather than what has happened, what might happen, or what you think should happen, you’ll find yourself growing calmer and more relaxed.
There are many other ways to relax, too, including a walk outside (especially in nature), listening to soothing music, and yoga. Healthy eating, sleep, and exercise habits also play a role in managing stress. Pay attention to your body and your emotions. When you feel the signs of tension, take a few minutes to pause and calm yourself.
Even in the best of times, people can find themselves with worries that seem too difficult to manage. And these are extraordinary times, in which many people are facing unprecedented worries and stress. If you are anxious about the transition back to in-person work, don’t be ashamed to ask for help.
Sources: Morgan, H. (2021, April 19). COVID-19: Returning to the workplace (C. Gregg-Meeker & B. Schuette, Eds.). Raleigh, NC: Workplace Options.
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