The past few years under the clutches of the pandemic have led many people to develop or exacerbate mental health conditions.
In 2021, nearly one in ten Singaporeans reported mild to severe stress related to COVID-19. As stress, anxiety, and fear became commonplace across the globe, working from home turned into a refuge for many. After all, most have become quite comfortable with little to no social interaction at work.
After settling into a “new normal” routine, however, the time has come for yet another disruption: the inevitable return to office.
As countries successfully manage the pandemic, organisations are re-opening their office doors and inviting employees to go back to the ways of face-to-face collaboration. While this might be a boon to some people, it may understandably feel overwhelming for others (think social anxiety).
After all, most people spent the last two years or so working from home and chatting with others through a screen. Now, they’ll have to re-learn how to commute and re-establish routines and relationships in the workplace.
Big changes naturally spike our anxiety, and the pandemic has changed many things, including our concept of social boundaries. So if you’re feeling a little nervous about working in an office setting again, you’re not alone.
We asked four of our behavioural health coaches for their best return-to-office tips on how to deal with anxiety. Here’s what they said.
📝 We’ve also included a downloadable guide you can use at the end of this article. Click here to download it now!
Understand the circumstances
Context is key to managing any kind of anxiety.
The first thing you need to do is to probe yourself about the source of it. Australia-based behavioural health coach and nutritionist Robyn Cam offers a few guiding questions:
- Have you changed jobs during the pandemic? (As so many people have)
- Has your company “restructured” and made changes to the office?
- Have your work priorities changed during the pandemic?
The idea is to determine the context from which your anxiety stems, whether it’s a matter of personal life:
- “I don’t know how I can do the commute again”
- “I’m so used to being at home”
- “My family relies on me”
Or external factors:
- “Will they think I was faking it online?”
- “Will I get fired if they meet the real me?”
- “Would I have to do small talk and how can I draw boundaries?”
Figuring out exactly what you’re anxious about can dictate the steps necessary to overcome it.
Create a toolbox of coping mechanisms
For Sally Mounir, a licensed psychotherapist and behavioural coach, accepting stress and anxiety as facts of life can be helpful in managing them in the long run.
“Some people will tell you, ‘Yes, I think I’ve felt that before,’ when going into an interview or an exam, or something like that,” she says. And in a lot of cases, successfully managing those butterflies “is part of what pushes people to success.”
Therefore, understanding “what a panic attack is versus a generalized anxiety disorder” is also vital in learning how to manage or treat it.
For the former, Sally suggested identifying and practising proper coping mechanisms. This can include breathing exercises, grounding, or even a daily routine of shutting out all social media and gadgets (you can find more exercises here).
Depending on what coping mechanisms are effective, Sally suggested building a toolbox so you can effectively manage stress and anxiety on your own, which you can quickly tap on when signs of anxiety emerge.
“Build a system in your life that helps you cope moving forward,” Sally advises. “Everyone has coping skills, some might be healthy, some might not. You need to have this toolbox so when you stop going to a therapist [or a coach], you are still able to manage [your stress and anxiety].”
Get ahead of uncertainties
A lot of times, anxiety can come from the unknown and the unfamiliar. Not knowing what to expect when you return to the office or feeling unprepared for the changes can be the root causes of anxiety.
Kissey Cabanero, a mental health practitioner and behavioural health coach, suggests voicing out any concerns and asking the necessary questions.
“If there is confusion regarding returning to the office, then raising them would help address your concerns,” she explains. “Gathering all necessary details would be helpful to address the fear of the unknown. The more information we get our hands-on, the more prepared we can become.”
Moreover, Kissey suggests planning ahead before returning to the office:
She adds that using a daily organizer or a notebook for jotting down notes might be an effective way to unload the thoughts in our heads.
Focus on your strengths and build a growth mindset
Clinical psychologist and behavioural coach Linda Rinn believes that one of the keys to managing return-to-office anxiety is by reminding yourself of your strengths. She suggests creating a Strengths Awareness Roadmap in which you:
- Assess where you are
- What is challenging?
- What did/can I do to overcome it?
- What am I learning to let go of?
- Name your strengths that will help you through this challenge
- Figure out what you would like to keep and do more of
According to Linda, people often fixate on what they’re not good at and, in effect, take for granted their strengths or traits that will allow them to overcome whatever challenge comes their way. This simple exercise can help reassure you that you are well-equipped to tackle that inevitable return-to-office in due time.
Another tip Linda offers is to build a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset, or the belief that basic qualities like intelligence or talents or fixed traits.
Fixed mindsets can be dangerous or self-sabotaging because it impedes people from even trying to overcome challenges. For instance, “I will never improve” is an example of a fixed mindset, where a person simply accepts that they may never improve and so will never even attempt it.
Instead, replace that fixed mindset with a growth mindset, or the idea that basic abilities can be developed through hard work. So instead of saying “I will never improve,” try telling yourself “I keep trying.”
By adjusting perspectives, you’ll find it easier to take on any challenge.
Create systems to ease the transition
If going to the office and breaking away from routine seems too hard, Robyn suggests creating systems that can make the transition easier while keeping your life organised. For instance:
- Set up your wardrobe into outfits, so you are ready to go in the mornings
- Have a “work only” bag that includes your comforts from home — keep your house slippers under your desk
- Have pre-prepared lunches or set up a meal service for dinners
- If you live with others, create a roster for helping out around the home like getting meals ready or feeding the pets, so there is less for you to do on your days in the office and you feel supported
There are also other aspects of work that can be tweaked to lessen the friction of the transition.
For instance, you can think about how you can make the additional commute time constructive, like listening to an audiobook or practising silent meditation while walking through the park.
You can also personalise your office space and make it a comfortable place to work at. This can be as simple as adding calming or energising colours, changing your screensaver, adding a coloured mouse pad, or placing a printed picture of your loved ones on your desk (you can find more workplace self-care practices here)
Other ways to make the transition easier include:
- Starting with a hybrid setup where you go to the office twice a week, and adjust as necessary from there
- Make contact with a favourite colleague and book a lunch date or coffee meeting
- Come in the office early to settle in before others arrive
- Prepare some topic starters and think of things to say to colleagues you expect to see in the office
Let’s not forget that things like getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, and lessening caffeine can make a huge difference in how you react and respond to situations.
Lastly, Robyn suggests acknowledging your emotions. These can be unsettling times, and if they are getting in the way of your work, then you might want to consider discussing these with a coach or a therapist.
Take this as an opportunity to be empathetic
Whether or not you’re feeling anxious about a return to office, this is a good reminder that we’re all in this together. As anxious as you might feel, someone else might be more so.
So when you do go back to the office, take this as an opportunity to empathise with fellow employees knowing that anxiety can get to the best of us.