Living through a pandemic probably brought about concerns and fears you’d never considered before — and even with COVID-19 rates steadily declining in some places, you could be holding onto those feelings, or even dealing with entirely new ones about going back to “normal.” One main issue that many working women and men are facing is heading back into the office after a year or more of working from home. If this describes your current state of mind, there are a few expert-approved tips to deal with back-to-work anxiety that could make your transition a lot smoother.
It may be helpful to first examine some of the main causes of any anxiety stemming from the move back to traditional office life. For companies lucky enough to experience growth over the last year — as was the case with wellness brand Homebody — getting back to work might involve more team members to interact with, and perhaps acclimating to an entirely new space as well. “Recently we transitioned from a small studio with two team members to a warehouse/office/fulfillment space and a bigger team,” says founder Rebecca Grammer-Ybarra. “The transition was certainly uncomfortable and tense at the beginning because we didn’t have time to acclimate or find our footing in the new space. We had to be fully functioning as we were moving in to meet current deadlines and that’s when I started to feel my anxiety and stress levels running high.”
Conversely, for businesses that were harder hit financially, there could be the burden of additional expenses (like rent for office space, transportation cost, childcare, etc.) that put even more pressure on the move back. “Given that working from home has proved to be convenient and cost-saving for many singles and families, returning to work brings a fear of increased costs, childcare issues, and the stress of workday commutes,” says Dr. Carla Marie Manly, clinical psychologist.
The lack of social interactions also may have resulted in your feeling a little rusty or less confident when it comes to having actual face time — especially if you’re having some insecurity around any physical changes that may have taken place. “[Some] may worry about their personal appearance or their effectiveness communicating in larger groups,” explains Dr. Stephanie Insko, counseling psychologist at Brentwood Counseling Associates. “Social confidence requires practice even in normal times. We’re out of practice at interacting in the workplace, and the added pressure to perform on the job makes the stakes seem even higher.”
An overarching theme is the discomfort that can come with any change to normalcy — just as many experienced when the transition to working remotely was first enforced. “It was an adjustment to set up our offices in our homes, conduct all our meetings remotely, and balance childcare/homeschooling with work,” says Dr. Insko. And Diante Fuchs, psychologist and anxiety coach, expands on some of the specifics of this new discomfort. “Our social and occupational interactions will no longer be capped to the time on a Zoom or phone call,” she says. “We can’t wear our pajama pants and comfy slippers anymore. We will be out there — interacting, mingling, visible to everyone around us. People can come up and talk to you at any moment. Conversations aren’t as rigidly scheduled anymore.”
Thankfully, just as you acclimated to the initial work environment changes, you can readjust again — with a few strategies that may expedite the process. “It is funny how quickly we adapt to situations as humans,” Fuchs says. “Situations that feel unfamiliar and uncomfortable become the ‘new normal’ very quickly and we reset our expectations of ourselves and our environment based on the needs of the moment.”
As for what those steps are that can help you reduce stress and worry — regardless of whether your anxiety causes are related to health, financial, social or other concerns that come with re-entering the office setting — read ahead to find suggestions from mental health experts as well as businesswomen going through the experience themselves. From breathing exercises to self-care rituals, some of these habits may only take a few minutes out of your day and could make a big difference.
How To Deal With Back-To-Work Anxiety: Give Yourself Grace
First things first: Cut yourself a little slack. As Dr. Insko explains, it’s totally normal to have reservations or be nervous about such a transition to what’s been your norm, especially when it comes to social anxiety any/or feelings around any physical transformations you may have had. “Give yourself grace,” she says. “When you start feeling nervous about how you look or what you say, remember that everyone else is making this adjustment, too.”
Not only should you not feel pressured to go seamlessly back to pre-pandemic life, but you may want to find the facets of your work-from-home routine that served you well and figure out how to integrate them into your new routine. For example, SKY TING co-founder Krissy Jones plans to stick with her slowed-down lifestyle. “I was living a fun but exhausting existence pre-COVID, jumping from studio to studio, Brooklyn to Tribeca to Chinatown, plus events and dinners almost every night,” she says. “I don’t want to be on the go, jumping out of bed at 7 a.m. every morning and out the door by 7:30 a.m.. My plan is to prioritize a slower lifestyle, and more simplified way of working when things start to open up again!”
How To Deal With Back-To-Work Anxiety: Reconnect With Your Work Team
If you ask Sara Barney, Founder and Principle Designer at BANDD DESIGN, your team’s new dynamic could be a concern, but she’s found that team-building exercise can help you reconnect and find a new rhythm. “Keeping up company morale and making sure that everyone feels open and comfortable around each other is so important when transitioning back into a ‘normal’ work space,” she says. “In my own business, team bonding has been key so that my employees feel connected to the new members that joined during the pandemic, as well as allowing us to be honest with one another and what we need out of our office situation."
Having an open dialogue with the team and addressing concerns head-on was also crucial for jewelry designer Maya Brenner when she headed into a new office a few months ago. “We had weekly check-ins, a safety suggestion notepad, daily breaks to clean common areas and paid time off for weekly COVID testing,” she says. “It helped alleviate some of the anxieties but it was not easy navigating everything that was happening all around us.
Dr. Manly agrees that this kind of honest discussion is worth having if you can. “If possible and safe, let your employer or HR team know your preferences,” she says. “Sometimes our input truly matters and affects long-term policy changes.” For example, some employers may even be open to negotiating your in-office hours to offer you the option of a slower transition. You never know until you ask.
How To Deal With Back-To-Work Anxiety: Focus On Your Breath
Another way to stay calm and present is by focusing on your breath as Dr. Manly recommends. “When your mind becomes activated by thoughts of returning to work, pause to breathe,” she says. “Remind yourself that [you already] successfully transitioned to working from home, so you have the skills it takes to move in the opposite direction.” A simple technique to try? Breathe in through the nose for four seconds, hold for seven seconds, and exhale out the mouth for eight. Then repeat as needed.
How To Deal With Back-To-Work Anxiety: Practice Self-Care
As the founder of a CBD bath product line, Homebody’s Grammer-Ybarra knows the importance of creating a self-care routine. Some examples of her go-tos include mind clearing walks, the use of CBD both internally an externally, and of course a good soak. “When I’m not at home and start to feel stress creeping in, I always take a minute or two to either take a short walk outside or do a breathing exercise to allow the stress to pass,” she tells TZR. “I also micro-dose CBD through the day to help with any worries or tension that can arise. I love Undefined Beauty’s CBD tincture Glow Drops, they help keep me calm while I’m on the go, plus they have a yummy tangerine flavor. If I am home when anxiety and stress strikes I always take it as a sign to take a break and take a bath. Our Under The Pale Moon Sky Pearlescent CBD Bath Soak is the perfect reset button formulated specifically for an overworked body and over-stressed mind.”
For Lindsey Carter, Founder and CEO of SET ACTIVE, sticking with a fitness routine is particularly helpful for de-stressing. “Between juggling the stress of the pandemic, being the CEO of a startup, and now being a new mom, for me it’s so essential that I carve out time to exercise and calm my anxiety,” she says. “Having an hour of Pilates helps me focus on my body and my breathing which helps ground me and makes my anxiety feel much more manageable.”
How To Deal With Back-To-Work Anxiety: Find A Safe Space To Vent
If you have an ally to whom you can share your anxious feelings — like a co-worker, a therapist, a partner, family member, or close friend — Dr. Manly says now might be the time to use them for support or just an empathetic ear. Journaling could also be a helpful way to release some of those feelings, she adds — the important thing is just to get them off your chest.
How To Deal With Back-To-Work Anxiety: Try Affirmations
Telling yourself encouraging statements can be powerfully effective for those facing stressful situations, including this one. “Use affirmations that undo some of the unhelpful thinking that perpetuates the anxiety [such as] ‘This used to be my normal and I am simply returning to it’, ‘I will get the hang of it in not time’, ‘Most people feel the same as I do’, ‘We are all in this together’, or ‘I am adaptable and capable’,” suggests Fuchs.