As workplaces start to open again after the recent lockdown, many will find their days working from home coming to an end. Some may look forward to returning to the workplace, especially if working from home has proved difficult. But for others, there may be feelings of dread and worry about returning to work, leading to poor sleep, irritability and in some cases, even panic.
Am I experiencing work anxiety?
Many of us experience anxiety or dread when returning to work after a holiday or time off. With extended time at home and many social changes to contend with, the prospect of returning to work may lead to anxiety. We can expect to feel apprehensive about change. Factors such as the physical environment changing, mask wearing, new rules, and social distancing concerns are just a few of the changes to which we are all having to adjust. Some of us may experience a more intense anxiety as a reaction to these changes. Signs can include:
- heightened worry about work
- feelings of dread
- disrupted sleep
Why back to work anxiety occurs
There are several reasons for anxiety about returning to work. We are still in the midst of a global pandemic, which is a new experience for most of us. To feel unsettled at this time is completely natural. Many of us are now returning to workplaces, which in recent months were regarded as unsafe environments. People are now expected to switch their mindset to acknowledge that the workplace is now safe, even though the pandemic is still present. Some have felt safe and sheltered at home, settling into a new routine with comfier clothes, more regular breaks and a better work-life balance. Others may have experienced a more challenging time working from home, and have felt isolated or experienced distraction, alongside a break from their usual routines. Some of us will naturally feel anxious about leaving the safety of our homes, particularly those with a pre-existing health conditions or people who have a high-exposure risk due to travel or the nature of their job.
Change can be hard to accept at the best of times, but for those who thrive on routine and control, returning to their workplace may pose a bigger challenge. Many of us feel bonded with our homes and associate them with feelings of safety. Some may miss their home, pets and family to the point where they experience separation anxiety.
What you can do if you feel anxious about returning to the workplace:
1. Acknowledge your anxious feelings
Accept feelings of unease, as these will pass. In difficult moments, focus on breathing slowly and deeply, and speaking kindly to yourself as you would a loved one.
2. Create a feeling of safety
Think about what it is about home that helps you to feel safe and comfortable, and take reminders of home with you. For example, a particular smell, trinket or item of clothing may be comforting. It might even be possible to take your dog to work with you, as some companies have become more flexible with work practices. Trial a short routine when returning home to help you feel more in control, such as showering, changing clothes or doing some exercise.
3. Speak to your manager
Explain that you’re struggling and what you might need, such as flexibility from the employer in regards to childcare arrangements, a phased return to work or some continued remote working. Explore whether some meetings can be conducted remotely, or have allocated meeting-free days. It’s okay to ask your employer questions if it’s not clear, for example, what protection will they provide, and how or with whom you raise concerns about safety. If you have suggestions about safety, share them with your employer. They are expected by law to follow the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) guidelines, as well as guidelines specific to their industry. Ensure you see a copy of their risk assessment and how they are working as ‘COVID secure’.
4. Talk to colleagues
Sharing anxieties can help you to feel less alone, more comfortable and help create plans at work. You may all need time and a slower pace to reconnect and process changes at work, so try to be patient with yourself and others.
5. Stay informed
There is a lot of guidance available around issues such as travelling as a passenger, meeting with others safely, and working safely at gov.uk.
6. Seek help if needed
If this is causing significant distress and impacting greatly on your life, seek out a psychologist via your local NHS wellbeing service, or source one privately. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) or Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) can teach you more flexible ways of responding to anxiety.
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This article was published on 22 April 2021.
Dr Laura Keyes is a Clinical Psychologist, registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and British Psychological Society (BPS). She runs a private practice offering psychological therapy and assessments for neurodiversity to children and adults in Bedfordshire: drlaurakeyes.com
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