Staying Calm When Returning to Work in the Office

The countdown has begun. With more Americans getting vaccinated and the pandemic subsiding (for now), businesses are calling employees back to in-person work. If you’re anxious about packed commutes, crowded meetings, colleagues’ vaccination status, finding childcare, or losing the extra personal time you’d found, then join the crowd.

You may have ‘reentry anxiety,’ which is the fear of contracting or transmitting COVID-19, and of negotiating social interactions after more than a year of social distancing. Your anxiety also could stem from no longer feeling in control of your schedule or life, says Susan Evans, PhD, Professor of Psychology in Clinical Psychiatry. “Many people are anxious about returning to work after a long period of working from home,” Dr. Evans says. “Some of their anxiety is related to feeling uncertain about what life back in the office will look like.”

To avoid or at least reduce your anxiety, you can mentally prepare to return to work by following these tips:

Write down what you are worried about

“Writing down specific concerns can help you create a plan to manage them,” Dr. Evans says. If you are worried about the safety of your workplace, for example, then plan to speak to your manager about what steps are in place to ensure your health and safety.

Practice pre-pandemic routines

Wake up at a certain time, dress for work, and do the commute. “It is normal to feel mildly anxious when you think of breaking out of a routine or losing the convenience and flexibility of working from home,” Dr. Evans says. “Exposing yourself to the feared situation, like returning to the office, can help you confront your anxiety and gain confidence by learning that you can cope,” she says.

Build stress resistance

Exercise, meditation, and yoga can all help you resist stress. Breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and getting plenty of sleep can help too.

Reacquaint yourself with your office

Visit before you have to officially report to work. Stroll around. Sit at your desk. Expect things to look and feel different than they did a year ago. You may want to clean or redecorate. Or, put a new plant on your shelf. Research shows that plants help reduce stress levels at the office and increase productivity by 15%.

Treat yourself to some new work clothes

Looking good can help you feel good.

Communicate assertively with your boss

“Some people mistake communicating assertively as being “confrontational,” but it is actually a very healthy approach to letting someone know what you are thinking and want,” Dr. Evans explains. Be clear about what you want. If that’s splitting your weekly work schedule between office and home, then identify how many days, if any, you feel comfortable working on site. Then ask to meet with your boss and communicate your desired outcome. “Your boss may not be receptive to your request, but it doesn’t hurt to ask, and you will know that you have done what you could to negotiate your schedule,” she says. “In some cases, talking to your boss about your particular situation could be helpful before proposing a schedule.”

Here is an example of communicating assertively with your boss:

“It has been a tremendous help to be able to work from home over the last year because I have been able to put in a full workday and oversee the care of my ailing mother. I know you are aware that my work output has been excellent during this period of time. It would make a big difference to my health and well-being to continue to work part time from home, since this arrangement has been both efficient and effective. I would like you to consider my request.”

Ask colleagues and superiors if they are fully vaccinated

This is an assertive action that could help you decide whether to take extra precautions. “Some fear offending their colleague or superior, but they can choose not to respond to the question,” Dr. Evans says.

Distinguish productive from unproductive worry

Unproductive worry involves ruminating about something that might happen in the future. Productive worry is taking action to solve the problem one is worrying about. “Rather than worry about a colleague’s or superior’s vaccination status, ask yourself, ‘What can I do to manage this situation?’ If you choose to not express your concern to your colleagues or superior, then you can still take control over the situation by wearing a mask and staying six feet away from them.”

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Clinical Service