While remote work during the pandemic had its own challenges, now that many people are back in the office in some capacity, they are finding it more stressful and anxiety-triggering than they anticipated.
According to a study by McKinsey, one in three employees say that returning to work has had a negative impact on their mental health, making them anxious and depressed.
Social anxiety may be a core reason a lot of people are nervous about going back into the office, said Naomi Torres-Mackie, PhD, clinical psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital and head of research at the Mental Health Coalition.
“Connecting over Zoom is very different from connecting in person, and two years into the pandemic, we are all a bit rusty when it comes to our social skills,” she told Healthline.
Lingering Covid-19 anxiety and fear of getting sick is also partially to blame.
“With the guidelines and situation changing daily, it can be difficult to feel secure that the pandemic is stable enough to be safe to return to in-person work,” said Torres-Mackie.
Plus, change itself is never easy. For instance, pre-pandemic most people were used to leaving home and going in to their workplace. However, the pandemic forced many workers to adjust to remote work.
And now, returning to the office is yet another adjustment.
“Even positive adjustments can be difficult. There is psychological comfort in routine, and when a routine becomes upended, it can trigger anxious cognitions, feelings of worry and unease, and low mood,” Torres-Mackie said.
Additionally, returning to a negative work environment can trigger stress, said Natasha Bowman, JD, founder of the Bowman Foundation for Workplace Equity and Mental Wellness.
“While working from home, many have been considered a ‘safe’ place free from office politics, micro-aggressions, toxic work cultures, and the pressure to conform to ‘corporate culture,’” Bowman told Healthline.
If heading back into the office is causing you stress, consider the following tips from health experts to help ease your return.
Accept your anxiety
Because anxiety tends to get worse when you resist it or judge yourself for having it, Torres-Mackie said accepting your feelings can help process them.
“If you can accept that you’re having difficult feelings and normalise them for yourself — many people are finding it stressful to go back to the office — then you’ll likely find that the difficult feelings start decreasing in intensity and frequency,” she said.
Natalie Christine Dattilo, PhD, clinical health psychologist, agreed. She said it’s best to resist the urge to assume something is wrong with you if you feel anxious, apprehensive, or nervous.
When thoughts like, “It shouldn’t be this hard,” “why do others seem to be doing okay?” or “what’s wrong with me?” come to mind, she said practice the following re-statements: I wish this were easier, but for now it’s still a struggle and I’m getting better every day.
There’s nothing wrong with me, it’s normal to struggle during these not-normal times.
Although it may appear others are doing better than I am, I don’t know that for sure.
Honestly, everyone is just doing the best they can, including me.
Gradually expose yourself
to in-office work
If you’re given a choice as to how much you work in the office, consider starting with a few days a week and add on more days as you adjust.
“Fear is best extinguished with slow, small steps towards doing the thing that most scares you. You might do this by going in just for a few hours a day for a while or by doing a test run on a non-workday of going to the office,” said Torres-Mackie.
Establish a routine
While you ease back into onsite work, try to be consistent. For instance, Bowman said decide what days and times you’ll be in the office, and plan your work around that.
“Having a set routine can help reduce stress and make the transition back to the office easier,” she said.
Create a task list
Take some time when you wake up in the morning or before you go to bed to make a to-do list of tasks and deadlines.
“Staying organised and on top of things will help mitigate feelings of stress and overwhelm during this adjustment period. This will also help you prioritise your time and effort as you recalibrate,” said Dattilo.
Give yourself time to readjust
Getting comfortable with things you haven’t done in a while like dealing with a long commute, traffic, in-office distractions, a chatty co-worker, or being in close proximity to others may take time, said Dattilo.
“It makes sense that a part of us will feel hesitant to do the things we’ve been told for over two years are ‘unsafe.’
You may have to repeatedly reassure your brain’s threat detection system that it’s ‘safe and ok’ as it learns to respond to a new set of circumstances,” she said.
Practice stress-relieving activities
As you adjust to being back, Torres-Mackie suggested scheduling activities that you enjoy and bring you stress-relief at the beginning and end of your workdays.
“This means you will have an opportunity to receive anticipatory stress in the morning before work and residual stress that you bring home with you after work,” she said.
And take breaks throughout the day, too, added Bowman.
“[Both] to give your mind a rest and to get up and move around. Taking a few minutes can help reduce stress and improve your focus,” she said.
If returning to work is stressful due to unacceptable conduct by co-workers or your employer, Bowman said inform the person crossing the boundaries that their behaviour is unacceptable.
“If that person is your manager, then report them to HR. Have a zero-tolerance for workplace misconduct from anyone,” she said.
Seek professional help
If you find yourself feeling agitated, impatient, or panicky around your co-workers, Dattilo said the feeling will likely go away over time. Talking to a friend or family member may help.
“[But] if your anxiety persists or worsens, please don’t hesitate to seek support or speak with your doctor,” she said.
“Other scientifically-supported self-care practices to help mitigate the effects of anxiety include regular effortful exercise, natural sleep, social connection, gratitude practice, laughter or play, and meditation for relaxation or focus.”
The bottom line
While returning to onsite work may stir up feelings of stress and anxiety, having coping strategies in place can help ease the transition.