How to Combat Re-Entry Anxiety

By Tia Byer

Health risks aside, the thought of returning to the office after a worldwide lockdown can be daunting, to say the least. Dubbed ‘re-entry’ anxiety, a new consequence of COVID-19 is fast sweeping the nation. Research conducted by YouGov on behalf of The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development Association found that 44% of 1,000 working adults are anxious about returning to work following the Coronavirus outbreak. So why are we so anxious about returning to our once normal routines, and in what ways can we combat this re-entry anxiety?

Re-entry anxiety describes the stress associated with fears about being unable to re-adjust to our previously established routines prior to lockdown. Alex Cumming, Assistant Director of Delivery and Development at the Scottish Association of Mental Health (SAMH) explains this further: “the current pandemic developments are an unprecedented scenario for all of us, and it is okay to feel stressed or anxious”. He continues, “this is entirely normal, and it is highly likely that many of your co-workers, family and friends will be feeling the same way”.

For office worker Eliza Antonella, 25, re-entry anxiety is a reality. “It’s going to be difficult to adjust to it going back to normal and being super busy and fast moving again. After spending so long in lockdown just waiting to return to work, it so going to be stressful and disorientating”, she adds. Despite hoping “to continue working from home for a little bit longer”, Eliza realises the inevitability of eventually returning to work. If you are experiencing re-entry anxiety and worries about the forthcoming changes to our daily lives, know that there are ways to help combat these negative emotions.

Acknowledge your fears.

Whether it’s fears of returning to a heavy workload or re-entering a toxic work environment, experiencing dread about the lockdown lifting is not surprising. Psychiatrist Dr Fiona Wilson explains that “it is important to remember that it’s natural to be anxious about this re-emerging phase given that there is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding coronavirus.” As clinical director of The Edinburgh Practice, Wilson explains: “our internal threat systems are likely to be activated, just as they were prior to going into lockdown”. Acknowledging the way you feel will help you better understand what’s going on in your mind. Once you identify unsettling emotions such as stress and worry, you can start thinking about ways to adjust to easing yourself back into the working environment. Think about what could help you feel more comfortable. Maybe it is reducing your working hours or centring yourself in the meaningful hobbies you have acquired during lockdown. Why not simply confide in someone else about what’s troubling you?

Know that you are not alone.

When a nationwide movement towards a COVID-19 exit plan raises issues about confidence and wellbeing, know that you are not alone. Sophrologist Dominique Antiglio explains how “re-entering a fast-paced environment and lifestyle can be extremely stressful”. As a modern mindfulness practice focusing on stress management, Sophrology works to regulate a relaxed body and mind through meditation practices. Antigilo claims that following COVID-19 she “can observe in my clients [that] people are deciding to stay a bit more confined”. She explains how readjustment can be difficult when we “have gained a lot of freedom during this time”. Dominque claims that inevitably “there [will be] people who are naturally slower at re-entering a normal schedule and a normal way of life”. As such, responsible employers must prioritise psychological health measures just as much as physical safety measures. If you're given the option of working from home, go for it. Many offices and places of business will be implementing a return to work scheme focusing on social distancing measures. This could include opting for a skeleton staff rota or encouraging those less eager to return to the physical office to stay connected virtually. Either way, things cannot totally go back to normal for a long time. Our pre-COVID-19 reality will be a transitional experience, perhaps taking many months. At a press conference held in March, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr Jenny Harries said that it could be six months before the UK “can get back to normal”. So, if your manager offers you the chance of working from home a little longer and you like the idea, seize the chance.

Speak to your manager about how you are feeling.

Even if you have not received word from your employer about continuing to work from home, there is still room for negotiation. Make sure you voice your re-entry anxiety. “Anxiety thrives on uncertainty, so what may help during this transitional phase if you are experiencing anxiety will be to focus on the things that are in your control”, Dr Wilson explains. She suggests having a “return-to-work conversation with your line manager to feel prepared for how the workplace will have been adjusted to meet new regulations”. Dr Wilson adds, “raise any specific concerns you may have, or indicate that your anxiety levels are currently high”. This will set clear and honest boundaries about what you are comfortable with going forward. Indeed, for concerned worker Eliza, gaining “reassurance that we as staff are the number one priority and also just being asked about how we are feeling” is paramount. Many employers will be welcoming feedback at this time to ensure employee satisfaction and wellbeing.

Take one step at a time.

Your first days back in the office may prove the most challenging. As such it is important to take one step and day at a time, and not over-do it. Alex Cumming, at SAMH, explains: “as lockdown begins to ease in Scotland, each phase will bring new ways for us to protect our mental health and wellbeing.” He adds, “adapting to change takes time, so be kind to yourself and take changes to your new routine slowly”. Cummings advises “speak[ing] to people you trust about how you’re feeling or even make the changes together for moral support.”

Employability project worker, Michael Fong, from the Edinburgh based wellbeing and social care charity, LinkLiving, advocates “setting small goals”. He explains, “building up your confidence to create routine will help make a similar pathway in your brain to rebuild pre-lockdown habits and good practice.” Once you return to work, stick to a healthy bedtime routine. Make sure you start going to bed early as a good night’s rest will make for a good start to the day. Avoid consuming too much caffeine. Extra stimulants might add to anxiety levels, making you jittery. Instead, limit yourself to one cup of coffee in the morning and remember to breathe whenever you feel stressed. If you do find yourself unable to cope, discuss this with your employer or seek advice from a mental health professional.

Readjusting to a ‘new normal’ will take time. There is no need to rush. Take a deep breath and proceed slowly. Remember that living through a global pandemic is no easy feat and as such, it is completely normal to be struggling with the thought of re-entering the outside world. It is your life and your mental health, and no one should pressure you into doing something that makes you feel uncomfortable.