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Returning to in-person work? 5 ways to manage re-entry anxiety

By Diana Ballon

Sweat pants (or maybe no pants), grubby t-shirts, no make-up, and time to do a workout and the laundry during the day instead of battle traffic: for many, these were just some of the perks of working from home.  Of course, there were some serious downsides as well, like isolation, fractured team work, struggles with motivation and lack of social connection, which even introverts likely miss.

Now fast forward a year and a half, and you may be one of the many people returning to in-person work, or planning to return, at least part time. If you are, there’s a good chance you are experiencing some re-entry anxiety.

According to a June 2021 survey by McKinsey Consumer Health Insights, about a third of respondents who have gone back to on-site work said that their return to work has negatively affected their mental health – and almost half who have not yet gone back anticipate that returning will negatively affect their mental health. Primary concerns in both groups seem to be around feeling safe and protected from Covid, and also losing flexibility in their schedules – and the autonomy that has gone with it – when they are back at the office.

“It’s not necessarily the people with anxiety and depression [before Covid] that will be more vulnerable,” says Rebecca Higgins, a Toronto mental health educator who offers workshops on re-entry anxiety and other mental health topics. In fact, people who have coped with adversity before Covid may have developed good coping mechanisms that have helped them through the pandemic.

But returning to work “won’t be a smooth transition,” says Higgins. Likely not everyone will be back at work at the same time. There may be a “hot desk” model, where you bring your own computer but don’t have your own office anymore. And you may be in meetings where only some people are there physically, while others are there virtually or are simply not there at all.  This could make you feel even more disconnected.

In a June 2021 New Yorker article, writer Anna Russell quotes author and conflict-resolution facilitator Priya Parker saying that “[o]ur social muscles have atrophied.” Though not referring to the workplace specifically, she highlights the awkwardness inherent in social gatherings where new, and not always clearly articulated, rules apply. Even answers to practical questions like where and when to wear a mask may be unclear and constantly changing.

Tips for easing workplace re-entry

Higgins offers five tips to help ease your re-entry into the workplace:

1 Be intentional about connecting. That means making plans to see or speak to two or three colleagues you most want to connect with before going into the office. “In the old days, we would just find each other [in the hallway, kitchenette, etc.]. There was more synergy when we were at work together,” says Higgins. But because we have lost these opportunities, it will be easier to reconnect at the office if you have made contact before— whether over coffee, on the phone, or even by text.

2 Check your facts against reputable safety guidelines, like public health. You can also check the guidelines for your workplace, and speak to someone you trust to gauge your perspective and hopefully reduce your anxiety. Saying the scary thing out loud can take away some of its power.

3 Be brave. “I’m a big fan of exposure – of practising being brave and taking small steps,” says Higgins. For example, if you haven’t taken the transit during Covid, and you know you will have to take it to work, then start by taking the bus or subway two or three stops on a weekend, when it is not rush hour. “Anticipation is often the worst part.”

4 Stay in the present moment, rather than focusing on how things looked before. Your office might be different, you may have lost some old colleagues, and likely you are now stuck wearing a mask all day. But don’t fight the changes by constantly comparing the present to how much better things felt before. “Give yourself permission to feel weird for a while.”

5 Acknowledge what you’re feeling. “When we push away our feelings and pretend we don’t have them, it doesn’t transform them,” says Higgins. “What you resist, persists. Telling ourselves we ‘shouldn’t’ feel a certain way doesn’t tend to help either. Acknowledging our feelings gives them space to be there and when they’re ready they’ll move on. Feelings aren’t permanent and they aren’t facts, but they can give us information about how we’re doing and what we need. Trying to wrestle our own feelings to the ground doesn’t work but we also don’t have to act on every feeling we have. Be patient with yourself and others. Notice how you’re feeling. Write it down or tell someone you trust. And remember you have a right to feel however you’re feeling.”

Just as people quickly get back into shape after a period of inactivity because their muscles remember what it’s like to move, we will readapt to work habits and routines that were once all too familiar. And as we do readapt, we may want to consider how to incorporate the positive changes we have made since the pandemic into our return to the workplace. For example, we may want to do a workout at lunch time, choose a simpler and more comfortable wardrobe, and ditch the lipstick and hair dye. But the pants — I doubt that we will be dispensing with those in the workplace anytime soon!

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