Over the course of just two weeks in March 2020, the vast majority of the UK’s office-based workforce transitioned out of the corporate environment and onto kitchen tables, into back bedrooms or literally onto laps. IT departments earned their keep by ensuring we were all connected and collectively we made the owners of Zoom instant billionaires.

It was very stressful. Very quickly we had to get used to a new way of living including washing our hands (more often), sanitising, wearing masks, queuing to get into the supermarket and worrying about how we were going to make rent and mortgage payments, feed and clothe our children and if our jobs were going to be safe.

It’s the everyday things we don’t pay attention to that when you suddenly have to be afraid of them, they strike at the very centre of our equilibrium.

We felt worried, anxious and scared about leaving the office and 15 months later we feel worried, anxious and scared about going back. It’s hardly a surprise. Coronavirus has been the biggest and most deadly public health threat of our generation.

The Great 2021 Mindset Shift

For 16 months we’ve been inside, squirrelled away and sheltering from the virus but now we’re being told that we can go back to work and try and return to our pre-Covid lives and routines. As one, we’re having to make a seismic shift in how we think about and approach our lives and the world we are now a part of.

It’s that feeling when you come back from a holiday or go back to school after the six-week summer break. There’s a feeling of dread and for many, it’s genuine anxiety. Here are the statistics according to research from Bupa Health Clinics:

  • 65% of UK workers feel anxious about returning to work
  • 42% are worried about being able to adequately socially distance
  • Almost 4 in 10 are worried about commuting to and from work
  • A third are concerned about the cleanliness of the office

The point here is that if you’re feeling anxious or uneasy about returning to work, you’re not alone. This is a shared experience a lot of us can relate to and while our individual circumstances are unique, we share, says leadership and organisational change expert Chris Cancialosi, ‘a powerful commonality centred around a key event.’

The thing is, it’s OK to feel apprehensive and anxious about going back to work. It’s an incredibly challenging time and the very thought of going back to work is an anxiety trigger as your brain is alerted to a potential new risk ahead.

However, there are strategies designed specifically to help you to cope with returning to work, so without further ado, here are the…

Strategies To Help You Cope With Returning To Work

Share Your Feelings As we’ve said, you’re not the only one who’s feeling anxious about going back to work. It’s important to share your feelings with your line manager to discuss what steps the company is taking to ensure the safety of its employees, to adapt the workplace to comply with the government’s guidelines and indeed any specific concerns you have about things like your desk position, the kitchen facilities and the common areas.

When people worry it’s often related to uncertainties of the unknown. It’s natural to be concerned about catching coronavirus and spreading it to family and friends but bear in mind it’s also unrealistic for things to be ‘back to normal’ on day one. Your colleagues will be feeling as anxious as you are but remember, there are plenty of positives about going back to the office including being able to see them again after so long, separating your home and work life and getting back into a routine you’re familiar with.

Be Prepared As far as you’re able, tune in to your new needs and requirements ahead of time so there are no (or fewer) unexpected surprises. You are walking into what is undoubtedly a fluid, constantly-evolving scenario but you will find comfort in being in control of the elements of your return to work you can influence.

From a practical standpoint, consider things like –

  • planning your journey to work – you may decide to take a different, safer, route
  • how the office will look – will your desk be in the same place as it was
  • who’s going to be in on the first day – how will you social distance from each other
  • making a to-do list – it will provide structure to your day

It’s worth noting that you’re not used to commuting or being back in the office so go easy on yourself. Rome wasn’t built in a day!

Be Kind To Yourself Going back to work after a prolonged and enforced absence is something we’re all going through in one way or another and despite our best efforts, mistakes will be made. The key here is to be patient and understand that we’re all figuring out the best ways to do the things we took for granted last year.

Self-kindness is often dismissed as fluffy, new-age claptrap but in fact, taking care of your mind and body – especially now – is one of the most important things you can do for yourself, especially if you’re struggling with anxiety. Take all the time you need to adjust to the new normal.

Talking of fluffy, there are plenty of people who benefit from positive, self-talk to get through periods of anxiety or self-doubt. It’s not for everyone but perhaps you try repeating some very simple affirmations (some people call them mantras) such as –

‘I can do this’

‘I am strong and I will get through this difficult time’

‘It’s OK to feel like this’

‘This will not break me’

Of course it goes without saying that a good night’s sleep, a healthy and nutritious diet and drinking plenty of water helps but if you need a 3pm sugar burst, no-one will object to you cracking out the Jaffa Cakes and calling everyone in for a (socially distanced) tea break and a natter!

Support Is Out There It’s very important to make clear here that feelings of anxiety, worry and stress are perfectly normal responses to the current situation. As well as getting practical support about returning to work from your managers and colleagues, there is more pastoral support available to you.

The major healthcare organisations in the UK have a wealth of free, online support available such as the Every Mind Matters program from the NHS and Bupa’s series on anxiety and mental health charity Mind have lots of very useful information about anxiety which is easy to read and digest. 

If your feelings of anxiety seem overwhelming, please don’t sit there and hope it will pass. There are some truly amazing people at the end of a phone line waiting to help you at The Samaritans and CALM. The transition out of lockdown is an arduous one but it will get easier. The key is to take one step at a time, regularly monitor and review how you’re getting on – personally and professionally – and keep in mind that almost everyone you see on the train or bus to work will be feeling like you are. You will find your path and in a few weeks or months from now you’ll look back with pride and say, ‘I did it. I wasn’t sure I could but I did!’

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