How To Manage Return-To-Work Anxiety

How To Manage Return-To-Work Anxiety

With the UK lockdown starting to ease, many of us are gearing up for a possible – albeit gradual – return to work. But after many weeks at home, reports of heightened anxiety among Britain’s workforce are multiplying. If this rings true for you, chartered psychologist Suzy Reading is here with her words of wisdom...

The government’s messaging regarding lockdown in the first eight weeks was so simple. In fact, there was one politician who said the only way to guarantee your safety was to “imprison” yourself at home. As extreme as that sounds, it meant that – at least initially – things were crystal clear, and so was people’s understanding. Now, although the measures to keep us safe haven’t really changed, the guidelines are being relaxed. It’s much more confusing. Furthermore, the statistics are still very worrying – but we’re being encouraged to change our behaviour. 

We know the threat hasn’t gone away and there is still a risk. So it’s crucial we know what measures are being put in place by our employers to protect our safety. You’re entitled to ask questions, including how they expect you to get there and back safely. 

Anxiety is a signal – a message to alert you to a potential threat. But you need to check in with yourself to see if it’s an appropriate message. If you’re a naturally anxious person, it might be a familiar feeling, but that doesn’t mean it’s warranted. If you feel it is, remember you have every right to protect yourself. 

Try not to view your anxiety as a kind of agoraphobia. For people with pre-existing medically diagnosed conditions, it can be triggering. But on a general level, it’s just about navigating the new normal. It’s useful to remember that everyone is bound to be more wary and more cautious. It might have an impact on everyday life, but that largely means a difference in how we view personal space and personal hygiene. If there’s any kind of upside, it’s that we’re all going to be taking much better care of ourselves. 

Limit your thinking to what you can manage and what’s in your control. There’s a difference between a little upheaval which is manageable, and discernible physiological changes which don’t feel familiar. If your reaction is different, it’ll show up in your breathing, possible sweating, a higher heart rate and even nausea. You might even experience racing, foreboding thoughts. If you’re worried by your reaction, or it feels new or alien to you, you are completely within your rights to let your employer know.

There is still so much stigma around mental health – not least in the workplace. Trying to decide or define what a “normal” reaction is – for every employee – is really difficult. Professionally speaking, compromises in mental health should not be treated differently to physical illness. Thankfully, the crisis has put mental health on the radar in meaningful way. 

Anxiety is a signal – a message to alert you to a potential threat. But you need to check in with yourself to see if it’s an appropriate message.

The word ‘toolkit’ resonates differently for different people but it’s essential for navigating any kind of extreme stress or change. There are numerous things we can do to help us feel calm. First, be as simple and practical as possible, and try to maintain your health ‘non-negotiables’. That means being well-fed so you’re not ‘hangry’, staying hydrated and moving regularly. Time in nature is also a potent de-stresser. Finally, try to stay as connected as possible with friends and family – whether it’s on Zoom or with texts or letters. If you don’t it, might be more jarring when you see them again after a long absence. 

Mindfulness means bearing witness to what is happening. Try and allow yourself to feel your emotions without judgement and, remember, you always have a choice. Concentrate on what you can realistically do and take action there. Ask yourself, what lies in your control? If something is beyond your control, no action will make a difference. 

In terms of a nervous system response – by that we mean the traditional ‘flight or fight’ concept – try to stay anchored in the ‘rest and digest’ area rather than the stress response. To do this, you need to claim back the ability to relax, which is difficult when we live in a society which sees this as an indulgence. Soften the physical tension in your body, and try to smooth out your breath. Also, it’s useful to practice giving equal airtime in your mind to the worst, best and most likely scenarios. Really reflect on all three – it’ll help keep everything in perspective and you’ll probably find yourself thinking more positively as a result.  

There is a way to work with the breath if you’re already in a state of agitation. It all comes down to synchronised movement – it’s why yoga is such a powerful force. Take ‘mountain’ pose, for instance. When you breathe in, reach your arms up to the ceiling before letting them return to your sides as you breathe out. You’ll find it deeply therapeutic. If you’re in public, try just moving your hands. Open them up fully when you breathe in and move them into gentle fists when you breathe out. Don’t think about the breath so much as the movement. You’ll find this is much more effective when it comes to anchoring the mind, rather than trying to clear it. Mantras can be really useful, too. Try saying to yourself “I give myself permission to feel these emotions” or “I am calm. I am safe.” Even if you don’t believe it at first, it can be very reassuring. 

We always have a duty of care to the people we live with. They too have a right to honour their boundaries with regard to you returning to work. It’s going to require a careful and compassionate conversation around what everyone feels is okay. Try to articulate the commitments your employer has made to protect you, to them. Explain that we all need to do the best we can. 

If you’re still struggling to get on board with a return to work, try to communicate that to your employer in a calm and articulate way. Explain that you want to work, but there needs to be concrete things put in place in order for you to do that safely and without worry. It’s perfectly possible to have this conversation without blame – but give yourself permission to have a difficult conversation. Finally, try and approach all these issues with compassion. Lockdown might have been a different experience for each of us, but no one’s had it easy. 

Suzy Reading is a chartered psychologist and author or The Little Book Of Self Care


*Features published by SheerLuxe are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent any disease. Always seek the advice of your GP or another qualified healthcare provider for any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, exercise or other health-related programmes.

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