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How to Manage Anxiety About Going Back to the Office

If you have concerns, you aren't alone and there are strategies that can help.

Key points

  • A recent global study found that 100 percent of the 4,553 workers surveyed were anxious about returning to their offices.
  • Stressors include health anxiety, social anxiety, financial anxiety, difficulty managing uncertainty, change, and creating a work-life balance.
  • Practicing self-compassion and assertive communication, planning ahead, and accessing support can help foster wellbeing during the transition.

The pandemic has taught us many lessons, including the challenges of maintaining work-life balance when the world turns upside down. As people migrated from their offices to working at home, some felt isolated and couldn’t wait to get back to their offices. Meanwhile, many others became accustomed to working remotely and never envisioned themselves returning to on-site work. Others have resigned because of overwork and burnout and others have pursued entrepreneurship.

Some companies made some big decisions early on about remote workers. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced in May 2020 that employees could work at home “forever” if they’d like.¹ As workers began to enjoy the perks of a zero commute and more flexibility, productivity rose too. A study by Stanford University of 16,000 workers over nine months found that working from home increased productivity by 13 percent.²

Anxiety About Returning to the Office

As the world opens up, employers are requesting employees return to the workplace. Some people are experiencing return-to-work anxiety. A recent global study “Employee Care: Defining the New Normal” discovered that 100 percent of the 4,553 workers surveyed were anxious about returning to their offices.³ Reasons why included being exposed to COVID-19, less flexibility, and the hassle of commute times.

At times, each of us experiences stress, bouts of anxiety or depression, grief and loss, and relationship challenges. By being aware of them, we can access support and implement strategies to prevent them from becoming debilitating. In my clinical practice and global speaking engagements, I’ve identified the following reasons why people are anxious about going back to the office:

Source: Credit: Antonioguillem/Adobe
  • Change and uncertainty trigger stress and anxiety. As human beings, life transitions are stressful. Returning to the workplace may create change in people’s schedule and routine—needing to wake up earlier, to factor in time for commuting, and shifts in work-life balance. It may also increase the need for childcare, pet sitting, or eldercare support. Transitioning back to work can trigger arguments about division of labor and scheduling priorities between partners, roommates, or family members.
  • Financial anxiety is a common response to the pandemic. Unemployment and closed businesses have impacted many households and families. The increased expenses of dependent care, commuting, dining out while at work, and professional attire can cause financial stress and panic.
  • Health anxiety about being close to others. Some people have not been vaccinated due to their beliefs or underlying health problems. They may feel they are in a catch-22 if their workplace wants them to return to the office. Fully vaccinated people may worry they will be exposed to unvaccinated people or the rapidly spreading Delta variant. For some, the pandemic may have triggered some germaphobic behaviors that may still be in high gear as well as the following sources of anxiety:
  • Social anxiety is a normal post-pandemic response. Many of us have been sheltering in place alone during the pandemic or with a small bubble of friends or family. We are out of practice with basic social skills. The idea of being “on” for a full workday may sound overwhelming or draining, especially for folks who have more introverted tendencies. Furthermore, many people have gained pandemic pounds. According to a recent study, 42 percent of survey respondents said they experienced an undesired weight gain since the pandemic started. In the study, on average, Gen Z adults gained 28 pounds, while Millennials gained an average of 41 pounds.⁴ Subsequently, people may be feeling more self-conscious and less confident about being in the workplace and out in public.

There are ways to combat the stress, financial, health, and social anxiety that are prevalent, especially when we are being asked to go back to our offices after working at home has become commonplace.

Staying Mentally Well at Work: Takeaway Tips

  1. Practice compassion for yourself and others. Recognize that we all have unique stressors on our plates. We all respond differently to change and stress and have various levels of comfort returning to the workplace. Practice self-compassion and reflect empathy rather than judgment. Our emotions are normal responses to our nature and nurture. Be gentle with yourself and others.
  2. Take time to plan. Think through how returning to work will affect your routine. Do whatever you can to make the process less stressful for you. Map out your weekly schedule. Be sure to prioritize your wellbeing, including sleep, proper nutrition, exercise, and time for self-care like leisure activities and hobbies. Give yourself a cushion of time to transition between home and work. Think of any items or resources you may need, such as a couple of outfits you feel good in or a trustworthy childcare provider.
  3. Be assertive. Honor your feelings and create boundaries (limits concerning time, space, money, workload) with work and loved ones. Find your voice and use your words. Avoid resentment and burnout by speaking your truth. Advocate for yourself as you would for somebody you love very much. Communicate in an honest, direct, and clear way that demonstrates respect for yourself and others. Negotiate for the schedule, workload, and pay that works for you. Learn to say “no” as needed.
  4. Access help and support from others. Ask for what you need from the people who are capable of providing. If you have problems at work, consider talking to your supervisor, HR, or your Employee Assistance Program (EAP). If you are having financial stress, consider talking to a financial planner, advisor, debt counselor or looking into community resources and financial assistance. Consider seeing a counselor or therapist, to help you gain new coping skills.

Being compassionate, taking time to plan your next move, being assertive with your communication skills, and reaching for support will set you up for success in the workplace.