The Thrive Guide to Managing Re-entry Anxiety

Seven tips for making your return to work less stressful.

Are you ready to return to work? Of course, most of us have been working, but I mean, are you ready to return to work at the office? For some, the prospect is exciting. But for many others, it’s anxiety-provoking — like a scaled-up version of the Sunday Scaries. A recent poll by the American Psychological Association found that 49% of Americans were feeling anxious about how they’ll adjust to in-person interactions. 

It’s not surprising. We’re social creatures, and we haven’t really socialized in over a year. So of course we’re going to be out of practice. Last week, now that we’re fully vaccinated, my husband and I hosted some (also vaccinated) friends from out of town. In just three days, we socialized and ate at more restaurants than we had in the previous 14 months. But it was awkward at times. You get up to go to the bathroom and forget your mask. You’re not as intuitive with social norms. You’re not even sure what the social norms are now. For instance, I’m a hugger. I also live in South Florida, where the natural greeting for many is a kiss on each cheek. What will be the new norms for how we greet people? 

When the pandemic began, our lives were turned upside down and we were suddenly living with profound levels of uncertainty. But gradually our lives became less uncertain. For those of us who have been fortunate enough to be working at home, life became more predictable. We can wake up now and have a good idea of what the day is going to look like. But we’re moving back into another period of uncertainty. So anxiety about re-entry is only natural. And while change and disruption are inevitable, there are steps we can take to manage our anxiety. Here are seven ways to help make your return to work less stressful.

1. Make a plan

As someone who has struggled with anxiety, I know the value of making a plan for how to deal with it. It’s helpful to think through questions like, if I start experiencing anxiety, what should my go-to response be? What am I going to do to either calm myself down or get myself out of the situation? Everything might not go according to plan — life seldom does — but the fact of having a plan in and of itself can decrease anxiety.

2. Be intentional about designing your workday

Over the past year, many of us have created daily work routines that work for us. We’ve learned to take breaks, set boundaries and build well-being into our day. We need to be just as intentional about designing what our workdays will look like when we’re no longer working exclusively at home. Just because we’re back in the office doesn’t mean we should fill our time with back-to-back-to-back meetings and tasks.

3. Acknowledge your fears

Even those who are vaccinated can still have fears about health and safety. While over half the country is now vaccinated, there are still risks, and for many of us it will take some time to let go of the cautious habits we’ve become accustomed to. Acknowledging our fears about our health and safety after over a year of pandemic is not only natural, it can also help us identify and manage our anxiety.

4. Reframe change as an opportunity for growth

No matter where we’ve been working over the past year, we’ve all been more isolated. And when we start expanding our daily lives more, we need to remember that they’re not going to look like what they did before. From gyms to our favorite lunch spots, the places and routines that once gave structure to our days might not be there anymore. Some co-workers might be continuing to work remotely because they’re not comfortable coming back. The dynamic is going to be different, and that’s a kind of loss. But it’s also an opportunity for renewal and growth.

5. Remember the positives

The past year has been unspeakably tragic in so many ways, for so many people. At the same time, we’ve learned valuable lessons about ourselves and what we really value. We wouldn’t have chosen to come by our newfound wisdom this way, but here we are. And reflecting on the ways we’ve adapted and even managed to thrive amid all the challenges of the pandemic should give us hope that we can continue that in the months ahead.

6. Take small steps and celebrate small wins

We don’t have to return to the office in the same rushed and breathless way that we left it. If it’s possible for you, start slow. For instance, you might only go into the office for a half-day, or just two or three days a week. And when your Microsteps give you some micro-wins, mark the occasion with some micro (or macro) celebrations.

7. Re-enter with empathy

If we’re feeling anxious to return to work, chances are others around us are, too. So we need to be respectful of what our co-workers are feeling. That starts with asking them how they’re doing and opening up the conversation. Some might be completely comfortable, others might be the opposite. Not judging ourselves for how we’re feeling goes hand-in-hand with not judging others. We also need to be mindful of frontline workers who have been going in throughout the entire pandemic — and how the sudden influx of re-entering co-workers might be causing them anxiety. 

For those of us who have been working at home, a great way to hone our rusty social skills — and help build the critical qualities of belonging and shared purpose — is to continue checking in with our colleagues, even when we’re no longer peering into each other’s homes and lives through our laptops. 

Finally, remember that none of us knows exactly what’s ahead of us. It’s going to be trial and error. And it will be a lot easier if we’re easy on ourselves and we figure it out together. 

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