How to Deal with the Stress of Returning to the Office after a Long Layoff

Over one year after wide-scale remote work was implemented across the UK, approximately 60% of the workforce is still working from home in either a full or part time capacity. As plans to lift all lockdown restrictions get closer, many businesses are preparing to go back to the office. However, after months working remotely, many employees and business owners are finding that the return to work can be both exciting and stressful.

Research undertaken in economies that have already returned to office-based work shows that anxiety and stress are both common reactions among office workers in the post-COVID era. In this article we’ll look at how to manage these feelings and make the return to the office as pleasant as possible.

  1. Understanding what’s normal

Stress is a normal response to changes in our body or in our environment. Throughout the course of the past year, most of us have experienced work-related changes and other disruptions that have affected our personal lives – so it’s normal to have some level of stress built up. If you’re struggling to come to grips with your feelings, or unsure whether or not they can be linked to stress, then you should keep an eye on these physical and behavioural signs that can inform you about what’s normal and when you should seek help.

  1. Set clear expectations

Stress partly comes from uncertainty. Not knowing what the office environment will be like when you return, from layout changes and new workplace dynamics to flexible schedules and different expectations, can result in major anxiety after months spent in the comfort of your own home. If your employer hasn’t already done so, it may be worth setting some time aside to discuss what the new expectations are and any other concerns you both may have. Clear messaging can go a long way towards easing stresses and ensuring that the return is welcomed by all parties.

  1. Support activities

While you adapt to the new situation, it can be useful to give your brain the opportunity to be engaged in something enjoyable. Try to find activities outside of the work day or during breaks that keep you motivated and take your mind off stressful situations. The idea is to achieve a state of flow, which can counter stress, improve emotional regulation, and benefit workplace performance – it’s a win-win.

  1. Learn stress management techniques

Stress management techniques are a useful tool to have at all times. If you struggle with anxiety, diaphragmatic breathing can help you cope. Other techniques that can be practiced daily to strengthen emotional resilience include:

  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Guided imagery
  • Body scans
  • Yoga
  • Qi gong or Tai chi

If you feel comfortable doing so, get a colleague to join you in your stress-relief sessions. This can be a great way of building or re-establishing bonds with coworkers.

  1. Patience and understanding

These are trying times for all of us and it’s important to understand that not everyone reacts to stress in the same way. Introverts, or those who prefer to work alone, may interpret the situation differently from their more socially-oriented colleagues.

It’s also important to be patient with yourself and understand that you may need more time than expected to get suited to the new circumstances or to improve your stress management abilities. Placing unnecessary stress on your own ability to deal with these changes will only result in added anxiety and the vast majority of workplaces are aware of the teething problems that can come from such a marked change it routine. If required, ask for more time to come to grips with a return to the office or, alternatively, ask for a hybrid schedule that will allow you to ease into the transition.

A note for managers & leaders

Those in management positions are facing their own struggles and have the added pressure of keeping their teams together. Empathic listening is one of the most important things that can be done in stressful times. Strive to keep communication channels open and create opportunities for sharing.

Moreover, it’s highly recommended that leaders go out of their way to show appreciation for employees as they return to the office, an act which can work to reassure them and make them feel valued during this time of transition. You can also gather feedback from your staff about their current struggles and the tools or resources the organisation can provide to help them be more comfortable and productive in times of change.

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