Coping with anxiety around returning to work after lockdown

01 June 2021

If you’re going back to the office over the next few weeks or months, it’s natural that you may be feeling anxious. Adapting to change can be difficult at any time, but particularly if you’ve been working from home for a long time. Everyone will have different concerns about returning to work based on their own experience of the last year. But here we’ll explain some of the reasons you might be feeling anxious after lockdown and share some things you can try to help you cope.

What are the symptoms of anxiety?

Anxiety is a natural response to uncertainty. People often feel anxious when they’re worried about something that’s about to happen or might happen. Some anxiety keeps you alert and ready to tackle whatever lies ahead. But if your anxiety gets too much, it can affect how you feel and behave.

Everyone experiences anxiety differently. But you may:

  • feel panicky, tearful and irritable
  • get an upset stomach
  • feel sick or dizzy
  • get pins and needles
  • breathe faster than usual
  • have fast, noticeable heartbeats (palpitations)
  • get aches and pains, including headaches
  • need to go to the loo more often
  • feel very hot, or sweat more than usual

Why you might feel anxious when returning to work

Anxiety has lots of triggers and everyone’s situation is different. But it may feel like you’re starting a new job when you go back, even if you’ve worked in the same office for years. During the pandemic, you may:

  • have slipped out of your previous work routines and sleep patterns, while dealing with home schooling or other responsibilities
  • have concerns about meeting colleagues face-to-face again, or handling a regular commute on public transport
  • be worried that you don’t have the right skills if your role has changed or you have forgotten essential skills you haven’t used for some time
  • feel anxious about catching COVID-19 and/or transmitting it to vulnerable friends and family, especially if you’re still waiting to be fully vaccinated
  • have enjoyed working from home, without the pressures of being in an office environment

Tips for coping with post-lockdown anxiety

It’s important that everyone feels comfortable about going back to the office – and knows how to deal with any anxiety. Here are three ways you can adapt and prepare to help you cope as you return to your usual place of work.

Plan ahead for your return to work

  • Before going back to work, it’s helpful to prepare yourself mentally, physically and practically. Ask your manager about any changes to the office layout and procedures, including new coronavirus testing policies. Returning staff are likely to need a re-orientation or induction process to refamiliarise themselves with the workplace environment, equipment and routines.
  • Have a catch-up with colleagues via email, phone or video chat, so it’s less daunting when you see each other face to face for the first time after so long.
  • Plan your journeys in advance or see if you can have flexible working hours at first, so you can avoid the rush hour traffic or overcrowded public transport.
  • Re-adjust to new working hours before you go back – get yourself used to waking up earlier for a few days, as if you’re already commuting into the office.

Have open and honest conversations

Anxiety can affect how well you work and interact with other people. Some people may say they’re okay even though they’re struggling. So even if work colleagues appear to be coping well, it’s important to ask how they are.

  • If you’re feeling anxious about going back to the office, share how you’re feeling with your line manager and/or your colleagues – they’re likely to be feeling the same way too.
  • If you notice any members of your team seem irritable, nervous or quieter than usual, ask how they’re feeling, as some people may welcome some additional support.
  • Going back into the workplace may be tiring at first, so discuss the possibility of having a graded or phased return to work with your manager.
  • It may be tempting to work longer hours, especially if you’re catching up with colleagues. But don’t put too much pressure on yourself to get everything done straightaway.

Practise self-care

  • If you’re feeling anxious, there are lots of things you can do to help yourself feel calmer. Write down your worries so you can work out how to deal with them – and see what you can and can’t control.
  • Improve your sleep patterns – listen to calming music, read a book or have a relaxing bath every evening. And avoid using screens an hour or two before bedtime.
  • Eat a balanced diet, with regular mealtimes and plenty of fluids – this will help keep your energy and concentration levels stable.
  • Steer clear of caffeine and alcohol as these can make anxiety worse.
  • Practise deep breathing exercises and meditation to help you relax.
  • Download some mindfulness apps to your phone – these can help to keep you calm, especially on your daily commute.
  • Try to keep active – regular exercise is good for both your body and mind. Choose something you enjoy such as a walk, gym class or dancing.
  • Discuss annual leave, which may have been disrupted over the last year, to make sure you get some time off. Plan fun things for the weekends and make sure you relax in the evenings.

Asking for help

If you’re struggling to cope with your anxiety, or it’s getting worse, it’s important to speak to someone about it.

  • Make use of Employee Assistance Programmes or Occupational Health Services if your workplace has them.
  • Discuss your worries with family, friends or work colleagues, or contact your GP or a local counsellor.
  • Call a mental health helpline run by organisations such as Mind (0300 123 3393) or Anxiety UK (03444 775 774)
  • If you need urgent support, call the Samaritans helpline (116 123)
  • The Bupa Workplace Mental Health hub also has a whole host of free information for managers and employees about taking care of your mental health at work

Sources:

  • Covid-related anxiety and distress in the workplace: A guide for employers and employees. The British Psychological Society. www.bps.org.uk, published September 2020
  • Coronavirus and the social impacts on behaviours during different lockdown periods, Great Britain: up to February 2021. Office for National Statistics, published February 2021
  • Returning to the workplace after the Covid-19 lockdown: a toolkit. The Society of Occupational Medicine. www.som.org.uk, published May 2020
  • Anxiety and panic attacks. About anxiety. Mind. www.mind.org.uk, published February 2021
  • Anxiety and panic attacks. Symptoms. Mind. www.mind.org.uk, published February 2021
  • Coronavirus (Covid-19): mental health support for employees. Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). www.cipd.co.uk, published January 2021
  • Anxiety and panic attacks. Self-care. Mind. www.mind.org.uk, published February 2021
  • Anxiety and panic attacks. Treatment. Mind. www.mind.org.uk, published February 2021
  • How to be mentally healthy at work. Returning to work. Mind. www.mind.org.uk, published December 2020
  • How to cope with sleep problems. Tips to improve your sleep. Mind. www.mind.org.uk, published December 2020
  • Looking after your mental health. Eat Well. Mental Health Foundation. www.mentalhealth.org.uk, accessed March 2021
  • Looking after your mental health. Keep active. Mental Health Foundation. www.mentalhealth.org.uk, accessed March 2021
  • How can I learn mindfulness? Mind. www.mind.org.uk, published June 2018

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