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June 07, 2022

Feeling anxious about returning to the office? There are ways to smooth the transition

It helps to start practicing the new routine beforehand, focus on positives and eliminate as many unknowns as possible, experts say

Mental Health Anxiety
Back to office anxiety Elisa Ventur/Unsplash

Many people are feeling anxious as they return to the office after mostly working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Mental health experts advise people to start practicing the new routine beforehand, focus on positives and eliminate as many unknowns as possible.

More than two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans are either exclusively working from home or only heading into the office on a limited basis. But as more companies push toward having their employees back at the office, some workers are feeling anxious about the transition. 

A poll conducted earlier this year found 52% of working Americans had anxiety about working in person due to the omicron variant. The feeling is not new. Last summer, a study by McKinsey found that 1 in 3 employees said the thought of returning to the office triggered feelings of anxiety and depression. 

"Even positive adjustments can be difficult," Naomi Torres-Mackie, a clinical psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told Healthline. "There is psychological comfort in routine, and when a routine becomes upended, it can trigger anxious cognitions, feelings of worry and unease, and low mood."

The key to any adjustment is preparing yourself for it as best as possible, experts say. Here are some tips collected from Healthline, Boston University, Forbes and CNBC.

Don't judge yourself harshly

One of the most important steps people can take is to accept that their anxiety is normal. Do not assume something is wrong with you because you are struggling with the transition. Instead, focus on feeling a little bit better each day. Any type of change can take a while to process.

Margie Warrell, a leadership speaker and contributor to Forbes, says people need to acknowledge that all of their emotions are legitimate and that mastering them begins with self-awareness.

"Only when you own your fears can you avoid them owning you," she explained.

Start practicing your new routine before your first day back

If you have been rolling out of bed 15 minutes before your shift starts while working remotely, the idea of having to get up early enough to commute to the office may seem daunting. And if you have children, you will most likely have to make accommodations for their care as well.

To help prepare yourself and your family for a new schedule, figure out what time everyone needs to be out the door and adjust your sleeping schedule to make waking up earlier easier.

"It takes time to adjust and get back into a routine that most of us haven't done in two years," Anyelis Cordero, a career coach and the founder of Propel On Purpose Coaching, told CNBC Make It.

"For that first day back, especially, you want to make sure that you have everything you need to make yourself comfortable and feel 100% ready."

Focus on the positive

Instead of focusing on all the negative parts of being back in the office, remind yourself of the good ones, too. Maybe it is lunch with a co-worker, the return to interesting conferences or travel.

Practice stress-busting techniques

Some stress is inevitable in any situation, but you can keep it from overwhelming you by learning to recognize your body's cues. Does your jaw clench or chest tighten when you feel stressed? Do you get headaches? As soon as your body starts tightening up in response to a stressful situation, take a few minutes to center yourself. Deep breathing, meditation and other techniques can help you relax.

Reduce as many unknowns ahead of time as possible

Familiarity reduces fear, mental health experts say. Too many unknowns only amplify it. This is why it is so important to have your questions about returning to the office answered before you step back in the door. If your employer doesn't send out any detailed return-to-office guidelines and you are unsure of what to expect, reach out to your manager. The more prepared you are, the better you will feel that first day back.

Don't be afraid to ask for help

If you find the obstacles to returning to the office are too insurmountable, don't be afraid to ask help. For instance, if the logistics for childcare are a challenge, ask your manager about changing your shift so you can still cover what you need to at home. If you are worried that your anxiety is getting worse instead of better, talking to a therapist also could help.

Once you are back in the office, remember to be kind to yourself. It is normal to go through an adjustment period. It may take you a little bit to get back into the swing of things. Remember how you felt during those first few weeks of shutdown orders. This is the perfect time to practice self-care. Do something that makes you happy every day. We all need little treats to look forward to.

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