As more and more Americans return to the office, research indicates that they’re bringing some level of anxiety with them.
“While it is unwelcome, anxiety when returning back to work is a natural response,” explained Lisa Anderson Shaffer, a licensed marriage and family therapist and host of the mental health and wellness podcast, “Joy is Now.” “After working from home for over two years it is normal to feel like going back to work in person is an entirely new experience. And in general, new experiences can make us anxious.”
Work anxiety can be triggered by different realities. Meeting new coworkers or reestablishing in-person connections with an existing team can cause social anxiety. Conference rooms or office spaces may suddenly feel claustrophobic in ways that they didn’t prior to the pandemic.
“Anxiety about returning to in-person work might not even feel like the nervousness and looping thoughts we normally associate with anxiety,” Anderson Shaffer added. “Everything from navigating a commute and public transportation…to leaving pets, children, family members, and roommates and going back to work in person can be a big adjustment — all of these changes can lead to anxiety related fatigue [too].”
Feeling fatigued or overly stimulated after time around people, or in the office, can be a natural response to reintegration. In some situations, it’s the equivalent of being asked to run a marathon without proper training first. It’s exhausting, unnerving, and something you need to find solutions for while actively doing it. Here are some tools to navigate your own return-to-office anxiety.
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How to be honest and about changed realities
“Many people’s families have changed,” said Surabhi Lal, a workplace and leadership expert and an adjunct professor at New York University. “Be sensitive to grief and joy that might come up [for yourself and others]. … [Also,] while some may be eager to gather, it might take others some time—make space for large and small gatherings and points of connection.”
As you navigate going back to work, take a few moments to jot down how comfortable you are with being honest about how your life circumstances have changed. This may help establish your boundaries and also dictate how both you and your team can best support your transition back.
In addition to grief and births, many people’s lives were punctuated by a new-to-them reality — caregiving. According to one study on behalf of the National Foundation for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20% of Americans (18 and older) were caregivers to an older adult family member or friend during the pandemic, while 52% of first-time caregivers reported their new role was caused by of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Many family caregivers may have found themselves moving a loved one in with them to keep the loved one from experiencing loneliness and isolation, assisting with personal care tasks, offering tech support for those virtual medical visits, and much more,” noted Nicole Brackett, a licensed practical nurse and the care delivery and education manager at Homewatch CareGivers. “For some, this became a renewed connection and for others it was burdensome. The definition for ‘caregiver’ changed or expanded on an individual basis since COVID began.”
Whether you’ve become a parent, lost a loved one, or taken on the role of a caregiver, each of these identity shifts can trigger anxiety when returning back to work. Having an expectation-setting conversation with a manager, or with your team if you’re a team lead, can help ease the transition.
How to advocate for your mental health at work
Births, deaths, and new caregiving situations are also not the only triggers for increased work anxiety. Existing mental health conditions, or new mental health realities that surfaced during COVID, can make it just as difficult to navigate working in person once more.
“We are all starting from a place of trauma and burnout from the pandemic — keep this in mind,” noted Anderson Shaffer.
Learning how to advocate for your mental health, no matter the reasons behind your trigger, can be helpful to add to your anxiety toolkit.
Where possible, Lal encourages employees to take the lead in opening up the conversation around work anxiety. Some template questions an employee can ask a manager include:
I’d like to understand the expectations around returning to the office—is there a good time for us to talk more about it?
I’m wondering if our company has any new benefits to support employee well-being that I might not know about?
“Many companies have added mental health support so reach out to your manager or HR to see if there are services that you don’t know about,” Lal said. “If you have the option to return to the office gradually, that might also reduce the mental impact of going back to the office.”
Opening up to your existing support system, outside of the office, can also help make the transition easier for you.
“As family caregivers transition back to work in the office, even on a hybrid schedule, they should have back-up care for their loved one who has come to depend on them much more,” Brackett advised. “This might be help from another sibling, other family member, or a home care company to provide as much or as little care that is needed in your time away.”
Knowing that others have your back can help ease some of the anxiety of feeling like you have to be everything to everyone all the time.
Where possible, it’s also important to practice self-compassion and self-care, particularly when your anxiety has peaked.
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“Take it slow and have a plan,” Anderson Shaffer said. “ Practice using coping strategies at home.”
Those might include:
Figure out ahead of time what breathing techniques or other tools help you calm down when your anxiety flares.
Give yourself permission to take breaks. Sometimes stepping away from your desk to get a glass of water or take a walk around the block can help.
Try not to schedule your meetings back-to-back.
Gradually build your comfort level up over a few weeks, by adding meetings one by one over a period of time.
If you’re working on an email or rehearsing a conversation you want to have with your manager or human resources representative, Anderson Shaffer encourages leading with positives:
“I’m so excited to be back with the team in person. There is so much we can accomplish together, but I am also worried that I will be initially overwhelmed. How is it best to check in with you about what I can comfortably handle when I return until I am feeling more adjusted?”
How to support your team’s mental health
While an employee can bring up a conversation around their mental health, it’s also important for managers to help set the tone for teams and workspaces overall.
One helpful leadership tip is to create a safe space for open dialogue.
“For a manager talking to their direct report, [you can say] — ’I’d like to hear from you about how you’re feeling about returning to the office and if there is anything I can do to make it easier,’” Lal said. “[Or] once an official notice goes out about return to office, managers can start having conversations with their teams to find out what people are excited about, as well as what they are nervous about. Having these conversations helps both managers and their teams know what to expect.”
As team leads, it can also be helpful to your team’s mental health to remind everyone about employee assistance programs or other wellness offerings that are available to support their transition.
“It is never easy to be away from a loved one that depends on you for care but [wellness or caregiving support offerings] can provide people the peace of mind and helps to provide work-life balance with less guilty feelings of having to be away,” Brackett said.
Anderson Shaffer shared some additional accommodations managers can make to prioritize calm for employees:
Speak to the anxiety and adjustment of getting used to being back at work again
Start slow and allow people to readjust at their own pace
If a long and complex meeting or event is of critical importance, allow space during the day for employees to recharge afterwards