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Managing Back to the Office Anxiety 

It feels like we’ve spent most of 2020 yearning for a return to the normal. Hardly a day goes by without a conversation where we discuss all the plans we’ve put on pause. It feels like we have spent the year dreaming of an alternate 2020 timeline where our weddings, projects, holidays and career ambitions all just rolled on as planned. 

So we should be rejoicing at the prospect of taking another step along the road to normality by returning to the office, right? 

It’s not quite as simple as that. Whilst the office itself might look the same, how it operates, how we work, and most significantly, how we think have all changed. This week, I want to talk about some of the key psychological challenges workers have been coming up against when returning to the office, and what can be done to manage them effectively. 

Your Fears About Infection are Completely Valid 

Firstly let’s tackle the issue that’s staring us in the face – the fact that we will be returning to work when there is an unpreventable, incurable and potentially life-threatening illness circulating in our community. Australians like to be stoic in the face of danger, but the thought of leaving the safe, controlled environment of your home and commuting, eating and sharing equipment with other people is bound to raise your anxiety levels. An article in The Atlantic describes how this type of anxiety can manifest itself in the form of hypervigilance, the policing of colleagues’ hygiene practices and even outbursts of aggression when an office health protocol is ignored. The article went on to observe that often those experiencing these kinds of anxieties stay quiet out of fear of being perceived as the ‘squeaky wheel’ or a hypochondriac. 

Suffering Separation Anxiety From Your Home is Real 

Feelings of separation anxiety have been another common experience for many people returning to the office. Traditionally, separation anxiety is thought of as a condition that affects pets and small children when separated from their owners or parents. But it can affect adults too and the distress can relate to separation from places as well as people. Over the course of 2020, many of us have bonded with our homes on a new level. We’ve come to think of them as a safe haven from the pandemic chaos outside, the hub of our lives and one of the limited spaces where we can explore and pursue our interests and social lives. In light of this, it’s unsurprising that the thought of leaving that behind for eight hours at a time is distressing for some people. Common symptoms of separation anxiety include:

  • Unusual stress or heightened fear at the thought of separation
  • Excessive worry that separation could end in harm
  • Physical symptoms of stress such as headache, nausea, stomach ache or sore throat.

Feeling Lost in the Familiar? There’s a Reason for That 

One of the more subtle psychological challenges that many of us will face when going back to the office is the experience of cognitive dissonance that comes from being in a familiar space, but one that has undergone some radical changes. Returning to a familiar place and routine signals to our brains that they can switch on the autopilot function. This is a state where a part of our brain called the default mode network enables us to take mental shortcuts with everyday tasks like tying shoelaces, making tea or driving to work without really being aware of our actions. However, with COVID safe workplace plans in place, the autopilot settings we have for things like moving around the office and doing ordinary tasks will be shortcircuited. We will need to be self-aware in order to ensure we stay 1.5m away from our coworkers, wear protective equipment and follow the proper hygiene protocols. Maintaining this level of self-awareness whilst doing everyday tasks takes up an enormous amount of mental energy, so for the first few weeks back, you may struggle to concentrate or feel absolutely drained by 5 pm. 

Communication is the Key 

If you’re feeling any of these anxieties, know that you’re not alone. The entire working world is right there experiencing the same thing with you. You have a right to feel safe at work both mentally and physically and it is your manager’s job to ensure that happens. 

Forbes recommends that managers have one-on-one conversations with their teams as best practice for returning to the office. Doing this enables leaders to better understand their employees’ feelings about returning to work and facilitate their needs. If this hasn’t happened in your workplace, you have every right to reach out to your manager and set up a time to talk about your feelings, concerns, and needs. 

Once you talk to your manager, they are legally obligated to make changes to your role to help you continue working. That might mean more frequent breaks, flexible working hours, or more work from home days. Legal obligations aside, I believe that 2020 has dramatically altered the way we talk about mental health in the workplace. So when you reach out to your colleagues, I guarantee you will be met with compassion, understanding and empathy. 


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