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Managing Back to Work Anxiety

Dr. Julie Braciszewski PhD, LP

Michiganders are headed back to in-person work this week, and while some are feeling a renewed sense of freedom, others are facing significant anxiety. ‘Back to Work Anxiety’, as some are calling it, is part of the larger experience of ‘Re-Entry Anxiety’. We have been expressly avoiding many situations, interactions, and contexts for over a year to keep ourselves, and others, safe.  However, when we avoid a feared situation, our perception of danger increases, as does our bodily response to this fear. So now, as we venture out into the world, it is reasonable to feel a little wary, or even downright intense anxiety. The closeness of others, enclosed spaces, people touching things… it might all be a bit overwhelming. It’s imperative to highlight what we can do to manage back to work anxiety and make this transition a bit easier.

Evaluate What Has & Has Not Been Working For You

Over the past year we have adjusted to working at home by developing new routines and patterns of life.  Inevitably, some of these changes have brought additional stress. We can make a list of what new routines, situations, or responsibilities are causing more stress, reducing work engagement or satisfaction, and target these for change.  For instance, most people feel like ‘Zoom Zombies’ after a couple of hours of video conferencing. As you go back  to in-person work, specify a time threshold for video conference meetings and work toward shifting to more in-person meetings. However, for some the ability to take a break from work and do household tasks or errands has been a very positive shift while working from home. Additionally, people with families are reporting engaging in more meals together. Perhaps these are things you want to hold on to? Just as importantly as working to address added stressors, make a list of what is bringing more connection, relaxation, balance, and satisfaction and fight to keep those routines in place.

Communicate

This might seem like a no-brainer, but many struggle to really communicate what they need and what they want.  When we are stressed, our ability to communicate often declines further.  This makes the transition back to in-person work a potential black hole for communication.  About 60% of people report already feeling burned out, and are thus less likely to communicate their needs.  Once you’ve sat down and clarified what is working and what is not, translate this into actionable steps. Formulate assertive statements around what you want, why you want it, and how it will actually benefit your team, the business, or your work quality. Communication during this transition will pay off long-term for you and your employer.

Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries

For many, as work moved into their homes, it became difficult to separate work life, home life, and all our other responsibilities/roles in life. Our separate roles no longer fit neatly into their contexts and have compounded stress as we try to meet these intersecting demands. For instance, many people are simultaneously working, facilitating their children’s schooling at home or in a hybrid model, and providing support or care for other family or community members. It’s all a bit much, isn’t it?!? As we shift back to in-person work it’s important to think about boundaries between work and home, and reassess how to be sure you get time to relax, connect, and recharge. When will you NOT be available for work. If you return to in person work, practice putting down your phone, ipad, laptop, ect., and unplugging from work once you are home. If you are returning to a hybrid work model, you might have to work even harder to set your boundaries. Reclaim your home as your sanctuary, reclaim your family and friendship connections without the constant distraction and pull from work, and reclaim your balance.

Get Clear Answers

Returning to work in person is going to result in a lot of ambiguity at first. This will take a lot of planning on employers’ parts and at first, it might be hard to get answers to your questions. However, now is the time to speak up and ask important questions around expectations, policies, flexibility, and work roles. Do you have a firm sense of what the policies are around office safety and sanitizing? Do you have questions around flexibility of work schedules? It’s important you give your employer the opportunity to grapple with these questions at the outset, so that you, in turn, have the opportunity to get what you want and what you need.

Support Your Mental Wellness

The pandemic has caused a mental health crisis of the likes we have never before seen. Usually 15 – 20% of people are experiencing mental health challenges at any given time. But right now, about 40-60% of people are struggling with their mental health, before even contending with back to work anxiety! The importance of this increase in mental health difficulties cannot be overstated. The majority of individuals returning to in-person work are already feeling anxious, depressed, stressed, and burned out. We can not really switch into a ‘full steam ahead’ attitude at work. Instead, we must make room for how mental health is impacting our well-being. Identify what you need to prioritize your mental well-being during this transition. Many are asking to start back in stages, so that they can adjust their household needs, such as childcare, and get used to their new schedule. Should you ask to take walks on your break or lunch? Do you need to shift your work day to address sleep disruption? Can you seek out additional communities out of your office? Groups like recreational sports teams, moms groups, religious meetings, crafting group, sober living group, super-niche-car-guy group, provide connection and positive sense of identity. We can be purposeful in creating our own mental wellness. If you need support, don’t hesitate to reach out to us.

It’s OK To Not Be OK

Be aware that you will have a stress response to this transition. Because mental health IS medical health, you will feel back to work anxiety in your body as well. This may present in the form of headaches, gastro-intestinal distress, body aches, sleep changes and fatigue. Be attentive to this reaction. If your stress reaction, anxiety or mood difficulties are worsening, or have not gone away in a couple of weeks, give yourself the gift of professional support. You deserve it!

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