How to survive “back to work” syndrome

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Workers around the world are reporting natural feelings of anxiety about the return to work. So what can you do to deal with your own anxieties? And how should managers respond to support their teams?

In April this year, the New York Times reported, “A year after the pandemic abruptly forced tens of millions of people to start working from home, disrupting family lives and derailing careers, employers are now getting ready to bring workers back to offices. But for some people, the prospect of returning to their desks is provoking anxiety, dread, and even panic, rather than relief.

Those lucky enough to work from home throughout the last eighteen months, freed from the grind of the daily commute and enjoying the freedom of working from home, are often reluctant to think about going back to the old way of working.

And, now, the spread of the Delta variant and the subsequent rise in COVID-19 cases has only served to exacerbate the feelings of anxiety and dread many workers are experiencing.

Coping with the return to the office: plan and prepare

Mental preparation can help us deal with any change, no matter how stressful. Organizational psychologist Dr. Jo Yarker of Birkbeck University of London suggests thinking through what will happen on the first day back. Identify any concerns and raise any questions that you have with your manager.

Coping with the return to the office: don’t expect too much at first

Dr Renju Joseph, writing on the Priory healthcare blog, implores people to be kind to themselves. He says, “it’s ok to feel uncertain and distressed”.

If you find that things are getting too much for you after your return, Joseph recommends, “learning a few breathing techniques, where you bring your attention to your breath during these moments, can help you to relax, focus and quieten your mind”. Combine these breathing tactics with simple mantras, such as “It is okay to feel like this” or “I am strong and I can get through difficult times”.

Similarly, Forbes contributor Chris Cancialosi suggests giving yourself space to be patient and understanding with yourself and with others as we all try to adjust to the latest new way of working.

Coping with the return to the office: communication

Cancialosi stresses the importance of communication with co-workers and line managers. He suggests seeking out ways to engage with others in dialogue about the realities of the situation. Furthermore, he says, “if you are finding that the increased anxiety associated with these changes is becoming too much to manage you need to be honest with yourself and acknowledge that it may be time to reach out to someone who can assist.”

Managing teams who are returning to the office: create a space to share concerns

Harvard Business School professor Linda Hill warns that “you can’t assume that your employees will tell you if they are feeling anxious about re-entry”.

The Harvard Business Review states, “When people share their concerns — either openly or anonymously — make sure you allow for people to have mixed and complex feelings. It’s tempting to be positive about the upcoming changes as a way to assuage worries, but you risk making people feel dismissed, or you might inadvertently pressure them to hide their negative feelings.”

Instead, it is important to ensure employees feel heard. Managers need to create a space to have these important conversations – both within the team or with specialists, if necessary.

Managing teams who are returning to the office: vigilant compassion

Vigilance and planning will continue to remain key in every manager’s pandemic response.

University of Michigan’s Ross Business School professor Jane Dutton says this makes life very difficult for managers. While managers need to keep an eye out for signs of burnout and stress, especially as work schedules change, they are likely exhausted from the additional responsibility of caring for their team members’ wellbeing during such an intense time. “Compassion fatigue is real,” Dutton warns.

Don’t ignore warning signs of distress, recommends Forbes contributor Chris Cancialosi, “keep your antennae tuned in to yourself and your team”.

Managing teams who are returning to the office: communication

It’s important to be realistic and straightforward with your team. The HBR recommends encouraging staff to express both positive and negative emotions – and don’t force a tidy resolution to those feelings.

Most importantly, don’t make promises you can’t keep. HBR points out that it’s unlikely that you can say with 100 percent certainty that coming to the office has zero risks from a health perspective for every employee – so don’t.

Similarly, don’t be tempted to reassure key staff that they can continue to work from home for as long as they want in a bid to retain talent. That might not be true.

Instead, says Chris Cancialosi, “be honest with your team about what is known and what isn’t”.

A new way of working

Some progressive employers are seeking to embed the new ways of remote and hybrid working into their day-to-day practices, offering their employees their choice from the best of both worlds. While commentators have suggested these efforts will give such companies an advantage in the recruitment and retention of talent, and in staff wellbeing, some commentators have suggested the likely advantages of progressive working practices go much further than that – and drive to the heart of the success of the organization itself.

As marketing guru Seth Godin pointed out earlier this year, “The last forty years have taught us that the technology that most disrupts established industries is speed. The speed of connection to peers, to suppliers, and most of all, to customers. The speed of decision making, of ignoring sunk costs, and of coordinated action. The internet has pushed all of these things forward and, we’ve just discovered, the office was holding all of them back.

“As social creatures, many people very much need a place to go, a community to be part of, a sense of belonging and meaning. But it’s not at all clear that the 1957 office building is the best way to solve those problems.”

Ready for more tips?

Read our tips for stress management in a remote world.

Or enter our Success Lab for tips on how to manage a remote team.

Alternatively, read Switching off: why it’s more important than ever.