As COVID-19 restrictions ease, companies around the world are beginning to bring people back to the workplace. While some may be eager to get out of the house, the prospect of readjusting to in-person work is a daunting one for many.
Of a 2021 survey of 4,553 office workers from the UK, France, Germany, Australia and the United States, every single person reported feeling anxious about the idea of returning to in-person work. The top sources of anxiety were being exposed to COVID-19 (77%), followed by the idea of less flexibility and having to commute to work again.
Counselling directory's Melissa Sedmak, a BACP-accredited counsellor, says there are multiple reasons why people may be feeling anxious about working alongside other people again.
“First, the environment is very different,” she says. “Different kinds of distractions mean that our work might be less efficient until we find ways of coping with them. Some people might be seated in close proximity to others, which in turn will make concentrating on tasks more difficult. For example, while we can mute our phone from pinging, we usually can’t request that of others.”
Watch: Logitech sales up 66% on work-from-home activity
When working from home, we also have more opportunity to create our ideal working day. This might mean taking regular short breaks, grabbing coffee when you want and heading to the gym at lunchtime. However, returning to the office may limit your freedom.
“There might also be a concern about what is allowable behaviour. Eg, how often are you ‘allowed’ to leave your desk, stretch, take some fresh air in, make a cup of coffee,” says Sedmak. “At home you probably would have been able to switch your camera off, even if at a meeting, for a little stretch.”
And finally, the idea of commuting can be anxiety-inducing too. According to a survey of 5,500 commuters across six European cities, many find the journey to work more stressful than the actual job. Not only does travelling to an office take up time, being around hundreds of other people after 18-months of solitude can be stressful too.
“There might be a lengthy commute involved, which you might not be keen on making any longer,” explains Sedmak.
“You might feel tired from driving or being on the train with a number of other people – adding to the potential anxiety from contracting COVID-19. Mostly, I believe that just being surrounded by others will create a high information load for all of us, and in turn this might require us to step back and think how much we initially want to be social.”
How to adjust to working alongside other people
Listen to yourself
It can be challenging to go through yet another change to the way you work. Therefore, it’s important to pace yourself and take things slowly. It might be tempting to say yes to all social events on offer, such as post-work drinks, but check in with yourself to see whether you’re really up to it. If you’re feeling stressed out or overwhelmed, take regular breaks throughout the day.
Some employers allow people to wear headphones while working, so they can listen to music. This can help people
“I believe increased awareness of how our tolerance levels and our needs might have changed since March 2020 will be crucial in navigating and slowly increasing exposure to people and social situations,” says Sednak. “Even if that social situation is just what used to be a regular day in the office.”
Speak to friends
If possible, speak to friends about how you are feeling. If they’re in a similar situation, they may be experiencing the same difficulties and can offer guidance and support. It is also a good idea to speak to your doctor if stress is having a detrimental impact on your life.
“No matter how you’re feeling, it’s valid and it is understandable in the light of recent times to feel the way you do,” says Kirsty Lilley, mental health Expert at the wellbeing charity CABA. “Feeling stressed, anxious or depressed is an understandable response to the situations many of us have faced throughout these challenging times. Acknowledging how you feel is the first step in getting the help and support you need.”
Speak to your manager
It’s key for employers to be empathetic when people return to offices. If you’re struggling with the idea of working in the office full-time, speak to your boss about hybrid working options. “Talking to the line manager about what we need might also be necessary if we are finding social situations at work overwhelming and affecting our productivity,” says Sednak.
It’s also essential for employers to ask themselves if it is really necessary for all members of staff to be in the office five days a week. “I imagine a lot of HR policies will need to be revisited and potentially revised,” says Sednak. “Was the work being done during lockdowns? What worked well with remote working and what didn’t work?
“Ultimately, if the work was done, would that not be a reason to question the benefits of being fully office based? Seeing that the cost of being fully office based is substantial, now is the best time to look at what opportunities hybrid work might provide.”