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Home » Your Health » Anxiety over workplace return is not unusual

Anxiety over workplace return is not unusual

By Dr. Andrea Piotrowski
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Monday, September 27, 2021

Experiencing mixed feelings about heading back to work during the pandemic? You're not alone.

If you are one of the thousands of people who have been working from home during the pandemic, it is very likely you are experiencing a variety of emotions about heading back to work, ranging from excitement about seeing your co-workers face-to-face again to anxiety about COVID exposure for you at work, or for your children at school. Chances are that if you were working from home, you had established a comfortable routine, one you might now be hesitant to give up by returning to the office.

Not unlike a child's first day at school, a return to the workplace often generates a combination of excitement and “anticipatory anxiety.” This type of anxiety is related to uncertainty. This could be uncertainty about changes in the workplace, whether COVID-19 safety protocols are well-established, or even acceptable ways to interact with others – Can I eat lunch with my co-workers? Will meetings be in person?

Rather than allowing uncertainty to intensify anxiety, consider the alternative of using the uncertainty to lead to opportunity. Consider developing a routine that gives you a greater sense of control and predictability. This might include integrating elements of the work routine and set-up you enjoyed at home into your workplace such as:

  • Taking a break at lunch to go for a walk.
  • Preparing healthier lunches and snacks.
  • Setting up photos that bring you joy.
  • Having quiet music in the background.
  • Using a sit-to-stand (adjustable) desk.
  • Making sure your work area is clean at the end of the day.

Making a list of what you have missed from the workplace can also get you more excited about returning to the workplace. The list might include the opportunity to connect directly with your co-workers, dressing up (getting new clothes for the first day back at work), and re-establishing a clear distinction between the office being “a place for work” and home being “a place for play, rest and family.” It might also include the efficiencies of a return to the quick hallway conversations (socially distanced, of course).

There are a number of other steps you can take to make your return to the workplace easier and to help overcome anxiety about it:

  • Start adjusting your sleep schedule a few weeks before returning to the workplace for an easier transition.
  • Make the commute to and from work more pleasurable by listening to a podcast or your favourite music.
  • Practise self-compassion. Recognize that some days will be better than others and that these types of fluctuations occurred even prior to the pandemic.
  • If there were aspects of working from home that you enjoyed, have a conversation with your employer about options to work from home full-time or in a blended (part home, part work) model.

If you are anxious about COVID transmission, recognize that you do have some control and can keep yourself safer by following current guidelines, which include being fully vaccinated against COVID-19, wearing a mask when indoors around others, maintaining physical distance, and washing your hands. You can also speak with your employer before going back to learn about safety protocols that are currently in place, as this can also help to reduce uncertainty.

Of course, the success of a return to the workplace doesn't rest solely on employees. Employers also have an important role to play, particularly around providing sufficient information about the transition back to the workplace – on topics including COVID safety protocols, changes in office spaces and staffing – to decrease anxiety.

Tips for employers:

  • Be proactive in providing information and reassurance about ways you are protecting their safety related to COVID-19.
  • Listen to the concerns of the employees and check in with them to see how they are managing with the transition.
  • Answer questions to decrease uncertainty.
  • Individualize return-to-work plans if possible to accommodate employees (for example, childcare needs).
  • Provide an opportunity for different models of working related to employee preference if possible (fully work from home, fully work from the workplace, hybrid model)
  • Recognize that some employees may struggle with the return to the work site and they may also have other pressures, so have resources available. Prepare to be flexible where possible to give more of a sense of control to the employee.

Communication and listening are key!

The Canadian Mental Health Association has produced an excellent resource for employees and employers alike called Return to the Workplace: A psychological toolkit for heading back to work.

Dr. Andrea Piotrowski is the WRHA Regional Medical Specialty Lead for Clinical Health Psychology and a clinical psychologist with the Clinical Health Psychology Program at Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg.

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