It’s finally happening! COVID-19 restrictions are loosening as vaccines roll out in many parts of the country. With more people vaccinated, workplaces are beginning to bring people back to the office. While some people are itching to get out of their makeshift workspaces, most feel anxious about the transition back. Surveys show that the majority of workers in the U.S. favor working remotely and don’t want to give it up. Here’s a quick dip into the possible psychology behind the anxiety and a few tips to mitigate it.
Reason #1: Burnout
If you’ve been struggling to juggle work and childcare, if you’ve experienced loss, if you’ve been caring for a sick relative, if you’ve been separated from your partner, if you’ve been boggled by how to make this year feel normal… then you’ve been experiencing stress. Stress in small doses is manageable but when it accumulates over a prolonged period of time it has the potential to cause burnout. Burnout is the psychological and physiological response to being overtaxed for too long. It can creep up on you slowly, but once you’ve crossed the burnout threshold, it’s like you’ve suddenly hit a wall — hard. It’s symptoms are tiredness, lethargy, apathy, and distractedness. When we are in a state of burnout, things that normally feel manageable become overwhelming and daunting.
That may be part of what’s at play when we consider people’s anxiety about going back to the office. Transitions take mental, physical, and emotional energy — even when they are positive and exciting. Think about the last time you moved. Was it exhausting? Did it take more out of you than you expected? The energy it takes to successfully move through a transition is in short supply when you are already burnt out. The anxiety might have more to do with your ability to handle change at the moment than with the actual change itself.
Reason #2: The Disaster Response
According to the National Academies Press, one of the “most longstanding and robust research findings in the disaster literature” is that “prosocial traits” emerge and strengthen. These traits include resilience, community building, resourcefulness, and adaptability. When disaster strikes, humans kick into high-gear, help one another out, and get creative.
It was during this period of disaster aftermath that we transitioned to our home offices. We moved onto video platforms. We called one another more frequently. We developed a new norm of office etiquette that was founded on compassion, one which forgave awkward Zoom-office setups and the barking dog in the background or the kiddo who crawled on someone’s lap mid meeting. We made time at the start of meetings to check in on one another. All this change was energized by the necessity to move forward and make do.
Interestingly enough, the fact that we are in less of a collective panic makes the transition back out of our home offices more difficult. With nothing scaring us out of our home offices, the move doesn’t feel as necessary. We have time to consider our doubts, the downsides, and to feel our internal resistance.
Reason #3: Saying Goodbye to the Good Stuff
After spending the past year adjusting to WFH, it turns out that it’s not all bad! Working from home has given many parents the opportunity to bond with their family more, to cut out the stressful work commute, to schedule things more easily, and to get chores and errands done throughout the workday instead of after it.
At first, many people felt overwhelmed by juggling the responsibilities of parenting and working from home. Now, though, many report that they find it easier to maintain a healthy work-life balance because of their home office setup. While many also miss the social interaction that in-person work provides, working from home reduces the number of distractions, increasing the ability to get into a steady and productive workflow.
Most importantly, parents who have transitioned into a caretaker role while the pandemic barred them from leaving the home for work state that they value the extra time they’ve spent with their children and aren’t ready to give that up.
It’s beautiful that the impending transition back to work has given us insight into the ways our culture has beneficially adapted over the past year to our situation. We’ve stumbled upon ways of living that we didn’t realize we wouldn’t want to give up.
So what can you do about this anxiety?
- Keep the silver linings in mind. In fact, make a list of them.
Gratitude journals are a tried and true way to mitigate anxiety. They help us realize that no situation is either black or white, all good or all bad.
Here’s a start:
- On the plus side, you’ll have less screen fatigue due to less time on Zoom!
- Prepare for a reverse culture shock.
The office will be the same but… different. People will still be wearing masks and keeping their distance as CDC guidelines suggest. It might feel eerily familiar yet unfamiliar. Just be ready.
Since anxiety feeds on the unknowns, talk to your boss or HR department to reduce the amount of unknowns in your future. Ask about the policies regarding COVID procedures, about how many people will be coming back, about the day’s schedule.
Importantly, if you do want to continue working from home, ask HR if that’s an option they’re willing to consider and who you should talk to about it.
- Keep up whatever has kept you anchored to sanity this year.
Whether it was daily walks, checking in with friends and family over the phone, bubble baths, or teaching your children to cook — keep it up. Don’t let your destressing habits fall by the wayside. Ask a friend or your partner to remind you that these habits are worth prioritizing.