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Managing Anxiety During Our Transition to In-Person Work

A return to a "new" new normal.

Key points

  • Transitioning back to in-person work will be challenging for some, particularly for the 7% of US adults with social anxiety.
  • Those without social anxiety may feel their communication skills have suffered during the pandemic, creating anxiety over re-entering society.
  • Practice and planning can help build one's social skills post-pandemic, including leaving the house regularly and making social plans.

“What a long strange trip it’s been.” — Grateful Dead

We survived a global pandemic, we grieved those whom we lost during this time, we weathered through social and employment limitations, and we braced ourselves during a boiling socio-political climate. We faced these challenges with our heads held high and adapted to a new normal. But, as the number of vaccinations is rising and COVID-19 cases are falling, employers are asking their employees to return to offices. The return to a pre-COVID world seems to be, strangely, stressing us out.

Let’s take a look into the factors behind this stress and how to manage our anxiety during this transition back to work, school, and play.

Why the transition back to the office is different

During the most harrowing times of the pandemic, we called upon our friends, our family, and our most popular social media outlets to provide us with comfort and solace. And, despite the sociopolitical divide, the “togetherness” that we craved was satisfied, albeit imperfectly, through virtual means of communication and limited physical social interaction. We adapted and adjusted to a new routine—work from home, unpredictable schedules, shifted routines—because it allowed us to find purpose in our daily lives. In essence, we got used to it. Yet suddenly, we need to readjust again, having been asked to return to the way we once were: the hustle and bustle of commutes, in-person interactions in the office, and a proper redistribution of our time within a proper schedule.

Our emotional balance sheet

Dealing, or coping with our losses means that we can allow ourselves to emotionally grieve while forging ahead with our lives with rejuvenated purpose and meaning. If we do a quick inventory of our losses and gains, we may be more equipped to identify our specific stressors and in doing so, help manage our anxiety about returning back to the office.

What we are losing:

We are losing the comfort of life at home during the week. Our morning routines went straight from a shower, breakfast, and a cup of coffee to starting our day with a phone or virtual call. For those without children, we could more easily balance our responsibilities at home with our work responsibilities.

Although we are regaining the life of commuting to work, it is more strongly experienced as a loss of freedom and sanity. During the pandemic, we were able to rid ourselves of commuting time, financial burdens, and cost to our mental and physical energy. We must now incorporate that into our daily schedules and financially budget the cost of gas, tolls, and/or public transportation.

What we are gaining:

For those with children, we no longer need to bear the responsibilities that we had to balance in caring for them, regaining a sense of freedom and sanity. We are able to rely on programs with coaches, teachers, and caregivers to distribute the weight of our sole caregiving responsibilities.

For those in the office, we are regaining a sense of daily structure and routine. In addition, we are re-establishing many of our work-social relationships. The camaraderie that we lost during the pandemic may be rediscovered through these casual interactions. This can foster an older, but now newer form of togetherness.

Restructuring Our Lives

During each transition in life, our schedules will oftentimes need to change. Take the time with your loved ones to form a daily and weekly schedule that can re-introduce you to some of the structures that were once in place prior to the pandemic. It may be a good idea to consider weekend trips or local adventures and activities that will allow you to reconnect with friends and family.

Some workplaces have allowed for a mixture of work-at-home and in-person office work, which has allowed the best of both worlds. For these situations, it is important to plan ahead to ensure that switching mental modes and routines can be easier to handle.

Just as we had embraced the long days of work at home, we will now embrace the hustle and bustle of work at the office. We have built a foundation of skills and knowledge from having to transition to both contexts, which will allow us to adapt as life moves us to another set of challenges.

Managing Social Anxiety

For a select group of people (about 7% of US adults) who struggle with social anxiety, this particular transition will be challenging, particularly if being at home was a safe haven. If you are in that category, your fears of criticism and judgment by others have been allayed by the protections of your homes during the pandemic. Being exposed again to a social environment may trigger your anxiety.

Although there is no avoiding the truth that your physical presence may be necessary for your job, there may be ways to ease back into a routine that can be more manageable. Try asking your employer if you can have a graded return to the office. If you have a mental health provider, it would be helpful to work with him/her to form a strategy to confront and manage your anxiety.

For those who did not have social anxiety prior to the pandemic, but now find that they are feeling awkward around social situations, you are not alone. Social interactions require communication skills, which can suffer when not used but can be honed with practice.

  • Try building your social skills through smaller bits of practice and planning.
  • Try leaving your home on a daily basis and making purchases for household items in person at the store.
  • For each place that you need to go in person, take a trip there during a time that no one else is around and reacquaint yourself with the surroundings.
  • Try making plans with friends and family on the weekends, or treat yourself to something you enjoy during the week after work in order to create something you look forward to after work is over.

Although the significant and immediate toll of the pandemic is coming to a close, we have another journey to embark upon. Thankfully, we still walk this journey together.


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