After more than a year of remote work, companies are eyeing COVID-19 vaccination and infection rates to make plans for returning to the office. Some have already opened their doors, putting a variety of safety protocols and policies in place. Others are making plans for the future.
Roughly half of employees are uncomfortable about going back, according to a recent survey by the American Psychological Association.
It makes sense, says Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at New York Presbyterian Hospital Weil-Cornell School of Medicine and author of The Power of Different: The Link Between Disorder and Genius. For more than a year, we’ve been making enormous changes in our lives to fight an invisible enemy in the virus, she says. The changes were reinforced by fear and the feeling that they were making those changes to protect themselves and those they love.
“It’s not as simple as turning it off like a switch. Any major behavioral change one makes driven by fear, then gets reinforced in a cognitive-behavioral sense—that reinforces that behavior. So now, doing something different is, after that habit has been formed over a long period of time, will incite some anxiety,” she says.
Some employers are trying to help employees by allowing them more flexibility and putting strict safety measures in place. But if you’re still feeling anxious about going back, there are some things you can to to help ease those feelings.
Feeling out of control can drive anxiety, especially if you have concerns that your fellow employees aren’t getting vaccinated or taking the virus seriously, says David Rock, CEO of the Neuroleadership Institute. Rock, who advises Fortune 100 companies liked Microsoft, Zoom, and Patagonia on workplace culture and leadership strategies, says information can help ease those feelings. “Try to maximize how much control you feel in a situation. Encourage your leadership to really be validated science and the evidence,” he says. Find out exactly what your options are and what measures are being taken to keep you and other employees safe. Then, you will understand the choices available to you.
“Baby steps” can also help, Saltz says. Exposure therapy is essentially doing one small thing to help you face your fear. “Then, once you feel okay doing that thing, you move on to the next,” she says. So, if your employer has set a return-to-office date and you’re concerned, try scheduling an hour to go in and be in the space or set up your workspace. “That would be healthier for you, as opposed to what some people may end up doing, which is retreating further and further,” she says. If you don’t take action to address the fear, you could end up struggling and, possibly, being left behind as other people move on.
Plan in advance
Having a plan for how you’ll deal with various elements of going back to the office can also help you alleviate feelings of stress and fear, says workplace expert Chester Elton, coauthor of Anxiety at Work: 8 Strategies to Help Teams Build Resilience, Handle Uncertainty, and Get Stuff Done. Mapping out the areas that may be giving you the most anxiety—commuting, meeting in groups, etc.—can help you alleviate those feelings, he says. For example, if taking the bus or train to work is making you feel anxious, think through how you can lighten that load. Are there days of the week or times of day that are better for commuting? Can you use flexible work options to shift your schedule to those times? Think about what, specifically, is causing you to feel concerned and look for ways to change the situation to help you feel better about it, he suggests.
Use coping tools
If the anxiety gets uncomfortable, either in advance of going back to the office or while you’re there, Saltz recommends using some of the tried-and-true methods of calming yourself. Deep breathing, muscle relaxation, and meditation are familiar recommendations, but they can help you ease the tension of the moment.
Have an ally at work
Elton says that having an ally at work—like a work best friend or a sympathetic supervisor—can also help you cope. “Sometimes, you will say things one-on-one that you won’t say in a group,” he says. You don’t want to over-use that resource or complain, but share concerns with leaders and people who support you. “I would encourage one-on-ones with your supervisor and develop that ally relationship,” he says. Ten minutes of earnest conversation can go a long way toward finding solutions and helping you feel better. And it’s also important to show empathy to others who are feeling worried or anxious, he adds.
Give yourself a break
Rock adds that it’s a good idea to limit your media consumption, especially negative news. “Do things that increase your positive emotions and do fewer things that increase negative ones,” he says. Try to focus on some of the positive stories that have come out of this time.
Saltz also has some frank advice: “Give yourself a break,” she says. The pandemic has been hard on everyone and it may take some time for you to feel comfortable with yet another shift in how you work. Don’t be too hard on yourself, especially because you’re worried or anxious. Cases of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse have increased dramatically during the past year. If you find that you’re not able to manage your anxiety about the office on your own, reach out for help, she says.