If you’re dreading a return to the office, it’s not just you.
“Some people don’t want to go back to work because, let’s face it, working from home is less hassle,” said Margie Warrell, a work coach and author of “You’ve Got This! The Life Changing Power of Trusting Yourself.”
“It’s more than that for many, though. Others are nervous or anxious about the health risks and anxious about their ability to make the adjustment.”
Below, employees share five concerns about going back to work that are keeping them up at night, from worries about lax mask ordinances to fears about experiencing racial harassment on commutes. Plus, we asked experts like Warrell for advice on making the transition as easy as possible.
1. I’m worried about returning to a germ-filled office.
Over the last year, Caitlyn, a licensing specialist in the health insurance industry in Iowa, has been in and out of her office. Her workforce was first called back in June, only to be sent back home shortly after when an employee tested positive for Covid-19. They returned to the office later in the month, but in early November, roughly 30 people in the office tested positive, so it was back to work from home.
Now everyone is due back to the office by the first of June. Caitlyn is dreading having to experience awkward water cooler talk again while also staving off germs.
“My top concern is the fact that not all people wear their masks the same way ― some cover mouth and nose, some just cover their mouth, some take their mask down all the way when speaking ― and not everyone cleans up after themselves,” she said. “You can’t count on everyone to wipe down the door handles or table after use.”
2. I love my work-from-home setup and can just as easily do my job remotely.
Like many people, Jonas, a Ph.D. student in formal mathematics and knowledge management, first struggled to adjust to working from home. At this point in the pandemic, though, his work-from-home setup is perfectly suited to him ― he bought a second monitor and a green screen for professional video calls and figured out a system to avoid distractions ― and he’s loath to give it all up (not to mention he’s still concerned about possible Covid-19 infections).
“Spending all that time, effort and money and now having to go back to the pre-pandemic routine seems like it was all for naught,” said Jonas, who lives in Erlangen, Germany.
“All the freedoms we enjoy in our home offices ― wearing whatever pants you like, structuring the day so it fits you better than the default 9-5, taking a quick half-hour nap if a work problem stresses you out ― that’s all about to go away.”
Jonas said it currently seems likely that higher-ups at his university are pushing for a return to the classroom. “They think in-person discussion is crucial to academic success, but I think hopping on a Zoom call is, in some senses, almost as good and, in some senses, even better.”
If the final plan is to go back, Jonas said he’s prepared to involve his union and see if, collectively, he and his colleagues can push for a more open-ended policy.
3. I’m an introvert dreading the small talk. And I gained some weight and feel self-conscious about that.
The fears are twofold for Stacey, a financial manager in health care research who lives in Salt Lake City. First, as an introvert, she’s really not looking forward to having to perform as an extrovert at work. She’s tried putting herself back out there, but finds it draining.
“I recently volunteered at a vaccination clinic, and in the space of four hours I talked to more people than I had in the entire year previous,” she said. “I was exhausted at the end. I felt so ‘peopled out.’” Then, to be honest, she said she feels self-conscious about the weight she’s gained during lockdown.
“I know that everyone else has also gained some weight during the pandemic, but I feel self-conscious about feeling self-conscious at this point,” she said. “Plus, what am I even going to wear to the office?”
Luckily for Stacey, her department at work has been sympathetic to workers’ individual needs. Her managers recently held a meeting where people openly discussed their preferences. Many employees felt similarly to Stacey and want the flexibility to do the laundry or dishes or care for their kids between meetings. Others feel like they thrive in the workplace and need to get out of the house.
“The main takeaway from that meeting was that we will get to choose what we want to do, and I am so thankful for that,” Stacey said. “I will probably go into the office on Mondays and Thursdays and work from home the rest of the week.”
4. I’m Asian American and I’m terrified of being targeted for hate crimes.
Jerry is an industrial designer working in the tech industry in New York City. He started his position in June 2020 and has been working from home from the jump.
“Right now, my responsibilities can be fulfilled remotely and I don’t have to be in-office,” he said. “I have co-workers in other departments (sales, IT, etc.) who are in-office most days, if not the entire week, but since my company spans several time zones, working from home means I can split up my workday into blocks. It’s much more efficient than me refreshing my inbox waiting for a response and finding ways to kill time when things are slow.”
Jerry is also Asian Pacific Islander, so working from home also means he’s been able to avoid riding the subway in the midst of the national uptick in harassment against Asian Americans.
“My anxieties around returning to the office are mostly rooted in social fear right now,” he said. “Last year I already faced harassment over my race and being blamed for COVID. As a New Yorker, I don’t want to go outside, especially if I can work from home and minimise contact with the outside world.”
5. I’m disabled and terrified of being forced to go back into the office and lose the gains I’ve made in quality of life.
Rebecca is a problem management specialist in telecommunications who lives in Washington state, which was hit hard early by Covid-19. She’s disabled, and said that when her office went fully remote in March of last year, her quality of life suddenly skyrocketed.
“I wasn’t losing two hours a day to commute, plus two to three hours a day spent crashed out recovering from the work day,” she said. “I had energy, I developed a baking habit.”
When her managers hinted at a return to the office earlier this year, Rebecca said she had anxiety attacks over it.
“In January, I started having nightmares that it was a new year and we had to go back,” she said. “I was and am terrified of being forced to go back into the office and lose the gains I’ve made in quality of life.”
“I don’t know how much I can express my terror over the thought of having to go back into the office, of having to commute an hour each way five days a week and sit under fluorescent lights that trigger migraine attacks daily,” she added.
Rebecca even started searching for a new job that would allow her to work on a remote basis. Given all that, it was hugely relieving when her managers recently announced that employees could pick the days they want to go back into the office or even stay fully remote, if that’s their preference.
“When my office announced that staying 100% remote was possible, I think I lost 100 pounds in sheer relief. I literally teared up,” Rebecca said. “I’ve been fighting to be allowed to work from home for years and it took a pandemic to prove I was right about being able to be productive and effective from home.”
How to deal with returning-to-the-office anxiety, according to experts.
If you’re experiencing heightened anxiety about returning to the office, there are actionable ways to address it (outside of the obvious option to get vaccinated to protect yourself from the virus and avoid infecting others).
Talk to your employer about your options.
If you feel you have some agency in the matter ― and have proven that your work can easily be done from home ― you may want to consider talking to your boss about making the current arrangement a little more permanent. A word of caution, though: Just don’t use the word “permanently.”
“Suggest a trial period to see how it goes with you working fully remote, even as other members of the team are in the building or working in a hybrid model,” Tracy Cote, chief people officer of Stockx, told HuffPost recently. “This will give your manager comfort that the arrangement can be dialled back if it’s not working out, and they may be more likely to give it a go.”
You can also ask your boss or manager to enact policies to ensure workplace safety, said Marney White, an associate professor of social and behavioural sciences at the Yale School of Public Health.
“That might mean reducing the number of people in the office at any one time, minimising the potential for close contact, creating separate work spaces rather than congregate seating or allowing flexible schedules,” she said. “In some settings it might also mean enforcing indoor mask mandates or requiring proof of vaccination before returning to congregate workspaces.”
Acknowledge the stress you’re feeling.
It’s OK not to feel 100% OK about going back in. If you feel yourself getting tense or overwhelmed days or weeks before returning, acknowledge that, Warrell said.
“That’s not to say you should dwell on what makes you anxious, but acknowledge all emotions as legitimate,” she said. “But the truth is, only when you own your fears can you avoid them owning you. Emotional mastery begins with self-awareness, by tuning into whatever emotions you’re feeling.”
Dip your feet back into socialising.
If you’re fully vaccinated but still feeling anxiety about going out in public, try to gradually dip back into normal, White said. For instance, if you’ve been home all this time, take the initiative and invite a group of other vaccinated friends to a picnic or hike.
“When this starts to feel more normal, you can then move toward indoor get-togethers with vaccinated people,” White said. “This strategy is similar to effective treatments for anxiety called systematic desensitisation, where the treatment exposes people to the fear-inducing situation gradually.”
Focus on what you are looking forward to at the office.
You may not be raring to get up early again or be excited to deal with your boss’s micromanaging ways in person, but there’s probably someone at the office you enjoy chatting with. A recent study showed that seeing work colleagues in person is a stronger motivating force for returning to the physical workplace than securing face time with the boss, which isn’t too surprising.
Before venturing back into the office, reconnect with those favourite colleagues and see how they’re feeling about the big return.
“Invite co-workers to share what you’re looking forward to and how you’ll make it fun,” Warrell. “Connection builds resilience so even before you return to the office. Once you’re back, make a point of having fun and find light-hearted ways to laugh about the transition, including the frustrations.”
Take it easy the first few weeks and prioritise routines and self-care rituals.
As your workday routine shifts back to what it was like prior to the pandemic, be creative in maintaining those parts of your day that have nurtured a sense of well-being over the pandemic.
“For instance, if you’ve broken up your daily Zoom marathon with walks in your neighbourhood, consider a regular lunchtime walk outside,” Warrell said.
As you readjust to office life, be prepared to arrive home much more exhausted than you think you should.
“While it may only take a few seconds each time to adjust to the new protocols ― temperature screenings, social distancing, mask wearing ― many will find the initial arrival mentally jarring because it’s not what we’ve been conditioned to experience,” Warrell said. “It will require extra mental energy to adapt to and process. Allow yourself that.”