According to Bupa Health Clinics, ‘back-to-work anxiety’ following the pandemic is experienced by 67% British workers, with the main concern in 42% of workers being whether social distancing can be maintained.
Going back to the workplace after a significant time away can be daunting and is something that many people are experiencing following the COVID-19 pandemic. You may be stressed about missing out on work and that your skills have decreased during your time away. You may also be feeling anxious about coping with the pandemic-related changes made to your commute and workplace or feel overwhelmed by not fully understanding what these changes are. As humans, we often find adapting to change and leaving our comfort zone highly difficult and we are inclined to fear the unknown. As a result, it is normal to feel concerned about how you will cope when returning to work and leaving the safety bubble of your home.
Managing your anxiety heavily relates to minimising stress of the unknown and finding comfort in daunting environments. While returning to work can feel like a big change, it is important that you take some steps to feel calmer and in control as you return to working life.
We spoke to Dr Mark Silvert, London’s leading psychiatrist at The Blue Tree Clinic, who provided us with 10 tips that can help you cope with ‘back-to-work anxiety’:
1) Communicate with your line manager. While you may have concerns that expressing your anxiety means you will come across as weak or overly emotional to your manager, try and remember that their main task is to support their team. It is therefore in their interest to understand what you are going through in order to support you accordingly, even if this simply means acknowledging and validating your feelings. Chances are if your anxiety is related to the pandemic then they probably have similar concerns! Perhaps there are even some things they can put in place to help you, such as slightly altered working hours, the opportunity to work from home a few days per week, or the ability to take more frequent breaks during the day.
2) Do something calming on your way to work. As you get closer to your workplace during your commute, you will likely feel your anxiety increase. Unfortunately, focusing and worrying about this will only make things worse. One really helpful tip is to do an activity that takes your mind off your journey, such as listening to a good podcast, doing a crossword puzzle, or reading a book. These activities are likely to help you feel calm as you immerse yourself into them rather than focusing on every minute that goes by. This will also help if the commute is the source of your anxiety (e.g. reading a book can take your attention away from how busy your surroundings are).
3) Prepare your sleep schedule. Think back to when you were a child in school during exam season, the teachers would always say to get a good night’s sleep before each exam. It is common knowledge that lack of sufficient sleep makes it more difficult to manage anxiety and stress, and also our ability to perform. Therefore, it is important you take the time to prioritise your sleep schedule before you start work by going to bed and waking up at times you would on a normal workday. Not only will this mentally prepare you for going back to work life, but it will also increase your coping abilities with feeling anxious throughout the day.
4) Structure your day. Making a to-do list can help you feel more prepared for entering the workplace again and allows you to focus on each task at hand. This will also help to prevent you from feeling lost and overwhelmed on your first day back. However, remember that you are no longer used to a regular work schedule so be easy on yourself. Keep your expectations realistic otherwise this may cause even more stress.
5) Remember to take breaks. Since you are out or practice with the day to day work schedule, try to avoid overworking yourself on your first day back. Allowing yourself to have regular breaks for even only 10 minutes to make a cup of tea can give you time to check in with yourself and monitor how you are feeling. You could also consider going on a walk during your lunch break.
6) Become familiar with COVID-19 workplace policies and procedures. In the event that your back-to-work anxiety is specifically related to the pandemic, you may find it beneficial to familiarise yourself with changes made to your organisation as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. As mentioned above, it is normal to fear the unknown and so having access to key information regarding this may help you to feel more prepared and supported for your first few days back at work. Often staff are informed about such things via email so double check if you have missed anything otherwise you can ask your manager for more information. Even learning small things such as where hand sanitiser dispensers will be located or how social distancing will be maintained can help you to feel more prepared.
7) Think about what you can control. Having to return to work is inevitable for most people. This often means leaving the comfort of your own home and going into an environment that you are no longer able to fully control. However, there are small ways you can feel calmer and safer on your first few days back. If you were away from work due to sickness consider bringing a small hot water bottle, a cosy jumper, or your medication with you. If your anxiety is related to the pandemic specially you could bring your own hand sanitiser, in addition to some gloves and a mask if you feel this would help you.
8) Talk to your colleagues. Most of us have colleagues we get on well with. On your first few days back make time to reach out to them, catch up over lunch, and even discuss your anxiety towards being back at work if you feel comfortable. Spending time with familiar faces that make you feel warm and welcome can remind you of one of the reasons you love being at work. This can also help to take your mind off your anxiety and help you slip back into your original role. However, remember that back-to-work anxiety impacts people on different levels. In the context of the pandemic, not everyone will feel the need to socially distance or regularly sanitise, for example. Try not to be embarrassed or ashamed by what makes you feel comfortable and remember to put your own mental wellbeing first.
9) Be kind to yourself. Acknowledge and accept that returning to work after some time off involves a huge shift in mindset which does not happen overnight. Perhaps you have stayed at home for many weeks due to sickness, surrounded by family and having plenty of rest without thinking about work at all. Returning to work after the pandemic also means that instead of staying home and sheltering ourselves from the virus, we’re now being told it’s okay to get on public transport and return to our pre-corona lives. It is important that you allow yourself the time and space to slowly adjust and remind yourself that your back-to-work anxiety is completely normal. The key is to be patient and avoid getting frustrated with yourself.
10) Leave space for your personal life. Often when people return to the workplace they feel that they must work extra-hard to catch up on lost time. You may find yourself being tempted to stay on for longer hours or take on extra tasks. In reality, this will only feed your stress and anxiety levels, as well as impacting on other things mentioned above such as sleep, taking breaks, and your ability to be kind to yourself. Once the workday has ended, focus on spending time with people you love and doing things you really enjoy. Even though the pandemic is still a reality, you can invite a friend round to watch a film in the evening or spend some time doing yoga. Giving yourself a well-earned break at the end of the day not only ensures you keep in touch with others and allow your mind to rest, but it will also mean you are more prepared to take on work again the next day.
“Given that we spend around 70% of our days of the year at work, the thought of going back after some time off can be daunting, and the resulting anxiety can be highly frustrating and impactful. By trying out each of the tips mentioned above you are giving yourself the best chance of coping with back-to-work anxiety and smoothly reintegrating yourself back into the workplace”.
Dr Silvert states "focus on the positives about going back to work". If you’re struggling to find any, here are some examples:
- A change to be more sociable during your day
- A professional working space
- Sufficient equipment
- Being free from distractions and be more productive
- Having a stronger boundary between your work and personal life.
If you feel that your anxiety is becoming a problem it is important that you speak to a clinical professional. You can access support from charity organisations such as Mind or the Samaritans. You can also receive further guidance and support from your GP or the Blue Tree Clinic who have psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists on hand ready to listen to your concerns.