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  • Elaine Way

Ten top tips to help you with 'back to work' anxiety after Covid lockdowns and WFH

It's no surprise that living through Covid and lockdown has had a toll on mental health and wellbeing. We've been through long periods of being highly restricted on where we can go, what we can do, who we can be with and in most cases, have now adapted to working from home. However, restrictions are lifting and after two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, many people are now returning to normal working routines. Following the announcement by Boris Johnson yesterday, it would appear that – at least in England – all restrictions are being lifted at the end of the month. There are certainly mixed reactions to this change – some feel it is too early and others are positively looking forward to it.

If you’ve been working from home, going back to the workplace, or even just getting back into your uniform or suit, can feel like a big change. Seeing colleagues (and lots of them) face-to-face, rather than on a laptop screen, can feel a little overwhelming. Walking through crowds of commuters to get on your train can seem like a riot of movement and noise. Driving on a fast motorway can feel alien. Covid is still with us and it remains, to some of us, an unpredictable risk. It would be very understandable if you were experiencing a few nerves or feelings of anxiety.

Our brains often see our home as our 'safe space' and never more so than when we have been actively told to retreat there because of 'danger'. We've developed new routines, new measures of feeling 'safe' and in many cases, the workplace seems like a distant memory.

Returning to the workplace after a long period of time away can make you feel anxious for a number of reasons. You might feel:

  • still worried about the risk of catching Covid

  • uneasy about being around lots of people

  • uncertain about changes that may have happened in your workplace

  • nervous about doing your job again after so much time away

  • feeling unsettled when using public transport again

  • uncomfortable being out of the ‘safe space’ of your house

Not only are we out of our old habits and routines, our brains may be slightly displaced by returning to what feels like a 'new' environment. Whether your anxiety comes from a fear of catching Covid or returning to work, it has been a challenging time and so it’s important to recognise this and be kind to yourself.

At the Studio we work with clients using Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) and clinical hypnotherapy to reduce their anxiety and also help them to find their solutions to the issues they are experiencing. We love to hear 'what works' for them because every single client is different, however, there have also been some common themes - or solutions - that have arisen.

Here are some ideas taken from successful solutions that have arisen from our sessions and also what we know about the behaviour of the brain, to help you reduce your anxiety too:

  • Don’t try to go from 0 – 100mph on your first few days back at work. Ease yourself back into old routines and habits, because it might take your brain a little time to adjust. Keep things simple so you don’t feel overwhelmed by the workload, the noisier environment, the number of people or the amount of noise. Don’t skip your breaks and take it easy at a pace that is productive, but right for you. Once you're feeling more settled, you'll get back to your normal pace of working.

  • Plan to get plenty of sleep and rest in the first couple of weeks as it is possible that because of the adjustment, you will be mentally and physically tired. This is an important aspect of self-care, but also because the brain processes events and memories from the day - you'll feel much more emotionally stable and able to cope better if you've had rest and sleep.

  • Speak with your employer or manager. It’s unlikely that you are alone in feeling displaced and anxious in those first few days back and it’s often better to talk about or mention how you feel so that they are aware. I have several clients who debated whether they should do this, as they didn’t want to appear ‘vulnerable’ – all decided to do it and every single person reported how supportive their mangers were with the situation. Remember, they’re possibly even feeling the same way. If you have concerns about safety – voice them and ask about what risk assessments have taken place or if they will still be continuing to keep some safety measures at work. Knowing facts and information will help you to feel reassured.

"I was amazed at how tired I was after only two days back at my desk. I actually fell asleep on the train on the way back home. I knew I had to listen to my body and have a few early nights. It worked well for me." - Client
  • Build and maintain a positive structure and good routine to your day. Scheduling in moments of reflection, rest, gratitude and remembering all the good and positive things in our lives, can be a great mental health boost as well as a welcome distraction from any nervousness. Perhaps you might wake up a little earlier to spend some mindful time at home, having a proper breakfast and not feeling rushed. This helps us to feel like we ‘own’ more of our day.

  • Plan some things you enjoy doing for when you’re not at work, to keep your working hours in perspective and to give you more things to look forward too. Perhaps a gym session, a walk, a book you would like to read or a phone call with a friend. Again, this helps us to recognise that we do have our ‘own’ time and helps us to apply self-care.

  • Can you use a lunch break to go for a quick walk outside, get a breath of fresh air and some natural light? Perhaps you can take in some headphone to listen to some music or a meditation/ relaxation track? Allowing your brain to refocus and have a break can be important.

  • Focus on the positive things you achieve while at work. Even if the day wasn’t completely enjoyable or comfortable, can you think of five things you did achieve? Can you compliment yourself on something you did, like talking to colleagues, a good phone call or clearing a bunch of emails?

  • If you do feel anxious, you can use breathing exercises to slow your breathing and create a sense of calm in the body. Try to smile more, because even if we don’t feel like it, smiling naturally releases positive chemicals into our brain that can make us feel just a little bit better. Plus, smiling is contagious and will help your colleagues, who may also be having a testing time too.

  • Can you take a small item from home, such as a photo or a small trinket of some sort? Having a connection to what became our ‘safe space’ can be soothing for the brain.

"I decided to take what I call my 'little box of calm' into work. It has a bottle of lavender oil, photos of my dog, a nice hand cream I got for Christmas and a few positive sentences - affirmations - I had written down to remind me to stay positive. I only used it once or twice, but it was a nice way to calm down, connect with home and feel relaxed" - Client

  • Does your workplace have counselling or talking services? If so and you think they would be useful, why not contact them to talk about how you’re feeling in confidence.

If you are experiencing significant symptoms of anxiety, remember that you can always see a therapist to help you with coping skills and to reduce the levels of anxiety you might be experiencing.

In most cases, the initial nerves or anxiety you feel will subside once you settle back into your routine, but if they do become an issue for you, don’t struggle along on your own. Be kind to yourself, because we have lived through a very challenging time, so do seek help if it is needed - and remember, you are not alone.

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