Going back to the office after working remotely for 16 months is going to be a shock to the system. It seems like we just got used to a new normal, connecting virtually and blurring the lines between work and home. But as workplaces reopen and we start to get back out into the world, it will be time to find another new normal. And going back to the way things were isn’t possible, says Reena B. Patel, psychologist and author of Winnie & Her Worries.
“Many of us have learned that we can be efficient and enjoy being at home,” she says. “But stepping away from isolation and re-engaging with coworkers offers benefits for your mental health.”
The first step is to accept that there will be an emotional change, says Patel. “We’ve been working from home and isolated for almost a year and a half,” she says. “Going back into a physical workplace will be a transition. Know and be aware that you will have valid concerns and feelings. We’re not going to wake up and go back to what was pre-pandemic. Too much has happened.”
How We Changed
Even if the pandemic didn’t affect you as much as others, you’ve probably developed secondary trauma, says Patel. “You may not have lost a loved one or gotten COVID, but you watched the world around you suffer,” she says. “We all have altruistic genes and feeling helpless and hopeless can weigh on you. Stressors and pile up and cause a lot of uneasiness.”
You also became accustomed to a new schedule and routine, which have been in place for more than a year. “We’re used to Zoom meetings and being able to multitask while not physically being present, like texting below the computer screen,” says Patel.
A year of isolation has also created a sense of interim agoraphobia because there hasn’t been opportunities to physical engage with others. “We have to relearn some of those social skills,” says Patel. “Although it was missed, it can cause anxiety in the beginning.”
How to Find a New Normal
Many of us have created a dependence on being home where we feel safe from outside stressors. We got used to taking precautions to protect ourselves and leaving them behind can create an internal conflict. If you will be going back to an office environment, start small, Patel suggests. Ask to start with a half day return to the office, or transition back to work in the fall, especially if you must figure out childcare.
“A transition period will provide you with a process of adjusting,” says Patel. “Allow yourself time. And talk to your employer to learn what mitigations have been put in place. It’s okay to ask what is being done to keep employees safe.”
The day before your first day back may bring feelings of uneasiness and difficulty sleeping. “Coming back will feel like the first day of a new job even if you’ve been working there for many years,” says Patel. “Know that the more you prepare, the less stress and anxiety feel. Create consistency to establish a new norm.”
Patel suggests doing a practice commute, driving by your office to refresh your memory on the route. Also, bring a piece of home with you, such as a scented sandal or a framed picture of your family or pet. Also, on your first day back plan activities that allow you to care for yourself. Patel recommends taking breaks and getting outside, which can positively impact mental wellness.
“Take a true lunch break to reset,” she suggests. “We became used to working through the lunch hour and staying on our screens. I highly recommend stepping away and eating outside if possible. The sun boosts overall wellness. Go to a separate location for lunch.”
Also look for opportunities for engage with others. “You may have forgotten how to initiate conversations, but it will come back,” says Patel. “People are resilient. When it comes to social interaction, it may feel uneasy at first, but the skillset will snap back into place.”
While every individual is different, Patel says it may take about two weeks before you feel back into the swing of things. “Don’t be hard on yourself during this time,” she says. “Make sure to focus on core habits, such as eating right, getting enough sleep, and limiting screen time. You may feel a sense of loss going back to the workplace since you’re used to being around loved ones. But if you anticipate these feelings, you can be more prepared to deal with them.”