Returning to work in the office: 3 EQ tips to manage re-entry syndrome.

With COVID restrictions being wound back, most people are looking forward to enjoying their previous personal freedoms.  However, when it comes to returning to work in the office, feelings are more mixed.

Surveys are showing a surprising number of employees are reluctant to return to work in the office. One American Psychological Association study found 48% of vaccinated employees are hesitant to return to face-to-face contact at work.  In Australia, groups such as Beyond Blue are noting similar hesitations about returning to traditional work settings.  Psychologists are calling this anxiety ‘re-entry syndrome’ and smart managers are going to need some answers.

Sometimes the cause of this reluctance is easily defined.  For example, some employees are afraid of contracting COVID in the office.  Others describe dreading the commute to the office every day.  Whenever the cause of a person’s hesitation is specific like this, it can be discussed and negotiated between the parties.

However, when concerns are less specific, or an expression of ‘generalised anxiety’, they are more difficult to resolve.  Generalised anxiety is harder to pin down.  The burden is very real for the individual, but the vague, ‘background’ nature of generalised anxiety makes providing support more difficult.

For example, some people describe a general hesitation about leaving the ‘COVID cave’ they have created for themselves during restrictions.  Others describe the kind of anxiety normally associated with starting a new job, rather than returning to an old one.  Again, in the absence of a single, specific trigger even the most well-meaning manager will be unclear as to how to provide support.

So, how can you support people’s anxiety about returning to work?  Whether you are trying to reduce your own anxiety, or to support your employees, the following steps will be helpful.

 1.    Baby steps.

Psychologists have used ‘systematic desensitisation’ to treat anxiety for over 50 years.  In plain English, being brave is easier with baby steps.  Instead of jumping in feet first, a graduated approach, such as returning to work in the office on-site part-time, could be a good start.   Alternatively, prior to the person’s scheduled return, if they could visit the office, just to say hello or collect some documents, that too can break the ice.  Another strategy is for work friends to meet up outside of work, just to re-connect.  

Seeing friends when returning to the office

If the anxiety is more serious, make the steps smaller.  For example, I have encouraged some people to go for a weekend drive, just to go past their office building.  Talking a trusted support person with you can make this easier.  Once the individual can withstand this low-level exposure, they can graduate to sitting in the carpark for ten minutes, then twenty minutes and so on.  Over several days, the person might go further, for example, walking towards the front door or walking around the office building.  Eventually they can repeat these steps without the support person. One important rule is that the individual is absolutely in charge of how much exposure they endure, and for how long.  This provides a sense of control over the process.

  2.  Re-framing.

Re-framing is another evidence-based strategy for treating anxiety.  

If returning to the office feels overwhelming, just like starting a new job, our own negative thoughts take over.  Can I do what’s expected?  What if things have changed?  Will I still fit in?  Will I get along with my boss?

However, like most negative self-talk, our brain is firing false alarms.

In reality, returning to an old job, even after a long absence, is not the same as starting afresh.  Despite anticipating the worst, we soon discover we can re-connect with old work friends, almost immediately.

When we walk in the front door our senses re-connect with the old familiar sights, sounds and smells.  Our senses tell us we’ve been here before, and it was perfectly fine previously (more or less). 

So when we notice anticipatory anxiety, we need to change our self-talk.  We can tell our self it’s just like riding a bike: -It will all come back, even if it doesn’t feel like it just yet.

Returning to work in the office

  3. Empowerment and boundaries.

Finally, managers should encourage staff to set their own boundaries.  Where possible, involve people in decisions about how much of their work can be done from home.  In the physical office, give people maximum control over hot-desking arrangements and their own ideas for social distancing.

Let people decide for themselves if they prefer to take lunch breaks outside instead of using common areas normally used for breaks.  If they prefer to not shake hands or greet people in the usual way, that’s their decision.   

We all want to have a say in matters that affect us and this need increases when we have a reason to be anxious. So when staff are returning to work in the office, good managers need to emphasise choices, options and personal empowerment. 

Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or contact us if you’d like to talk further about helping your team with re-entry syndrome.