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Feeling anxious returning to work in office? Here are some tips for you (and your boss)

Work is an important element in a person’s life. It can enhance an employee’s mental health in areas such as social interaction, work skills and a sense of meaning and purpose.

Feeling anxious returning to work in office? Here are some tips for you (and your boss)

Re-entry anxiety is a new trend whereby individuals experience higher levels of anxiety and stress in fear of changes that will happen when we now must step out of our homes more, return to the workplace and come into close contact with fellow commuters again.

Work is an important element in a person’s life. It can enhance an employee’s mental health in areas such as social interaction, work skills and a sense of meaning and purpose. 

Therefore, it is important that an employee experiences positive emotions and functions effectively for their wellbeing.

Despite the challenges that Covid-19 has brought, working from home (WFH) has provided some form of relief to Singaporeans, many of whom have found it easier to juggle family responsibilities and spend less time commuting.

Humans are creatures of habits. Once we find ourselves settling into a new routine after a year of WFH, it is natural to find ourselves experiencing varying degrees of anxiety known as re-entry anxiety.

"I was pretty comfortable with the WFH arrangement the past year. So, when I received an email from HR (human resource) saying my department had to come back to the office 100 per cent (of the time) from April, my heart sank,” said one of my clients, a 26-year-old woman working in the finance industry.

“As the date to return to the office drew nearer, my stomach aches became more frequent. I went to see my family doctor and even a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner but both told me the same thing —indigestion. That got me worried that it would be something more serious, but a friend suggested that it might be anxiety,” she said.

Re-entry anxiety is a new trend whereby individuals experience higher levels of anxiety and stress in fear of changes that will happen when we now must step out of our homes more, return to the workplace and come into close contact with fellow commuters again. 

In a low and healthy dose, anxiety tells us that something is important to us. 

Unfortunately, symptoms of anxiety can be overly heightened in our modern society as they are usually accompanied by negative thoughts which are often automatic and unhelpful. 

As a result, the brain will create negative scenarios as a protective mechanism, and we tend to end up avoiding situations that cause us to feel anxious, such as returning to the workplace.

Another client, a 31-year-old male in the media industry, told me: “When I took the train to work recently, I felt that there were just too many people, and it was as if these people were taking up all the air in the cabin. 

“It was difficult for me to breathe, almost like a heart attack. I googled my symptoms, and it pointed to anxiety. I would never have expected myself to get anxious as my job is already very stressful, so I thought that I would have gotten over it years ago.” 

These negative thoughts and the resulting avoidance behaviour tend to affect our ability to confront these challenges and reduce the level of anxiety. 

They can also affect our ability to maintain healthy routines and connect with others in a meaningful way. 

If these symptoms of anxiety go into overdrive, they can manifest in various unhealthy ways.

These can include irregular and unhealthy eating habits, irregular and inadequate sleep, getting agitated or angry easily, loss of attention and focus, physiological symptoms such as heart racing and difficulty in breathing even without physical exertion, feelings of nervousness or being scared without good reasons, difficulty in organising and prioritising tasks, and a decrease in work productivity.

For employees facing this anxiety, here are some helpful coping tips:

1. Acknowledge and accept that an increase level of stress and anxiety can be normal

We all have inner strengths that we tend to overlook when we are being hijacked by negative emotions. Be realistic, manage your expectations and show yourself kindness and compassion.

2. Set routine and small progressive goals that could help to overcome the anxiety

This can help you regain a sense of control and help confront your sources of anxiety rather than avoid them. If there is something or someone at your workplace that could be causing you to feel anxious to return to office, use this opportunity to address it.

3. Understand your thoughts and emotions and adopt coping strategies

Activities such as journaling or mindful colouring can help calm and train our brain to pay attention to the present moment rather than being carried away by negative thoughts.

4. Adopt a healthy lifestyle

Exercising, eating a healthy and well-balanced diet and having a good sleep hygiene of between seven to nine hours of quality sleep can help reduce symptoms of anxiety and induce positive feelings.

5. Continue to socialise and interact with others 

Use this opportunity to cultivate courtesy, kindness, and understanding for one another. Studies have shown that when you reach out to others, you experience positive emotions, and you benefit as much as those who receive your kindness.

6. Seek professional help if you feel that your problems are not going away despite your best efforts

There are many outlets available such as online counselling, where you can speak with a professional — at your own convenience — to learn how to be more in tune with your emotions and take charge of your own mental well-being in a safe, private, and confidential space.

For the employer, the following may be helpful:

1. Prioritise employee wellbeing

When employees are treated with respect and kindness, they experience good mental health which in turn improves their job performance and productivity. Have regular check-ins with employees to understand how they are coping with the situation. This encourages open conversations and allows for any warning signs of emotional distress to be identified earlier.

2. Offer flexible work arrangements

Do not rush to bring all the employees back into the office. Offer flexibility according to employees’ preferences and personal commitments.

The past one year of working from home has proven to be largely effective for the majority of industries in Singapore. As such, allow employees to make their own choices to encourage a gradual shift back to fully reopened workplaces.

Being in the office does not necessarily equate to increased productivity.

3. Implement an effective mental health support programme

Introduce external mental health programmes so that employees can seek professional help. With the advent of telehealth, these programmes can come in the form of online therapy sessions.

In conclusion, every crisis is also an opportunity to relook how positive changes can be incorporated at the workplace and how employee mental health can be enhanced.

The future of the workplace needs to be adaptive, as a high level of mental wellbeing among the populace benefits employers, employees and the society. 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: 

Chad Yip is a clinical psychologist for Noah and Zoey, which are digital health platforms for men and women in Singapore.

Related topics

work office workplace work from home Covid-19

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