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How to mentally prepare for a return to work

12 November 2021

As the world slowly starts to open following COVID restrictions, companies are finally beginning to welcome employees back to the office. While many of us have worked in an office for our entire working lives, we are creatures of habit and the psychological transition back to an office environment following an extended period at home may not be as straight forward as it once was. 

As exciting as it will be to get out of the house and to spend more time with our colleagues again, for many, there will be a level of anxiety, stress and uncertainty associated with a return to the office, and this is completely normal. Mental preparation is key to manage this transition well and to minimise the negative effects that change and uncertainty can bring. 
Zoom meetings. Online quizzes. Virtual happy hours. We’ve been living in a pandemic world for over a year now and for many of us, this has meant that our work and social lives have been almost completely virtual. For better or worse, we have been conditioned to view our new work routines as ‘normal’. But as vaccinations ramp up and restrictions begin to loosen across the globe, the new questions employees are asking are: Are we ready? After so much time apart, do we even know how to work in an office environment again? And what will the hybrid new ‘normal’ look like?
Just as it took time for us to adjust to working from home, it is important that we also allow ourselves time to readjust to working back in the office again, in whatever way that is. Mentally preparing for the day-to-day differences is an important way to ensure we do not become overwhelmed. 
The Wrkit and Allianz Partner’s Global Working From Home (WFH) Survey gathered feedback from members who were WFH across the globe during the pandemic; allowing for a deeper understanding of the challenges and benefits faced while WFH. The survey revealed that while participants were sleeping better and there was an improvement in planning their sleep routine -  likely due to the lack of commute - they were still struggling in terms of their diet, and the structure to their working day suffered. 
Although it was a rare occurrence to have so many working adults spend so much time at home, WFH did in fact have its benefits. According to the survey,  participants reaped the benefits of sleeping longer when they didn’t have to commute to the office anymore; and the extra time at home meant they were more connected with friends and family. 
If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that we have an amazing ability to adapt and adjust to new situations. Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine that overnight our worlds would be turned upside down by the pandemic. Now, however, we have the time to slowly readjust to a normal life, and to mentally prepare for a gradual return to the office. 
The WFH survey results revealed that those who were working from home were more stressed, if they did not feel they had adequate tools to do their job from home, and they were not taking enough regular breaks. A majority of the respondents also indicated that they were feeling more isolated while WFH full-time. 
A return to the office, however, will provide the routine and structure that many have been missing while WFH, and will help to overcome these difficulties. Being in an office environment surrounded by colleagues will help to alleviate this stress, and provide a sense of connection and a means to get closer again to teammates. This will also help with feelings of isolation, as more time in the office means more opportunities to be social and to organise work events. A structured working day, with allocated times for lunch, will also help to encourage employees to take regular breaks. 
If you are feeling nervous around returning to the office, taking public transport again or even being in a room with other people, this is a completely normal reaction post-pandemic. 
Here are our top tips to cope with anxiety  around returning to the office and how to mentally prepare yourself. 

The evening before you return to the office, it is important to make a plan for the following day. Make sure you are open to some flexibility, but having a general plan is always a good idea to provide you with the structure and confidence you need to restart your work commute . Although this will come naturally to you in no time, for the first week, preparation is key.

  • Set your alarm the night before and remember to factor in your commute time so you leave the house on time
  • Go to bed a little earlier the night before work and have a good pre-bed routine to help you relax and get a good night’s sleep
  • Schedule a couple of socially distanced meetings for later in the morning to be with others or to check in with a colleague
  • Have a prearranged, socially distanced coffee break or lunch with colleagues to feel better connected again
  • Arrange some time with your manager to help you settle into the new routine. Discuss work plans and use this time to share any concerns you might have
  • Again factor in your commute home when you are leaving the office in the evening
  • If dinner needs to be prepared, make it as easy as possible in the first days.  Have a pre-prepared meal ready to go, or get takeout
  • Make sure to take time for yourself during the day. Go for a walk or sit in a park.
Returning to the office and bumping into colleagues you haven’t spoken to in a long time can feel slightly intimidating. You interpersonal and social skills might be a little rusty! Each morning on your way to the office, take a few moments to think up some light conversation topics. 
Have you watched any good movies lately? Was there anything interesting on the news? Do you have anything nice planned for the weekend? 
Mentally preparing and visualising yourself in these social situations will help to ease any awkwardness you may be feeling as you return to the office. It will also distract from the inevitable COVID-related conversations and allow for more positive chit-chat. As you may not have been face-to-face with your colleagues for a while, there is probably lots to catch up on.
Even if life starts to get a little busier, remember to keep taking time out to look after yourself. Taking care of your physical health will help you to cope with feelings of anxiety and stress. 
Try to eat a healthy diet, limit your alcohol intake, exercise regularly, and get good quality sleep. Try not to overstretch yourself and take on too many goals or deadlines as you readjust to your new working life. 
Don’t be afraid to set boundaries; decline meetings or invitations if you need to. Planning out your workload with your manager in a realistic way while you adjust to the hybrid way of working will help.
Feeling nervous or overwhelmed about returning to the office is completely normal. We have been conditioned to socially distance for the past year; now that we can socialise again may feel difficult and take some getting used to. Speak to someone you trust and let them know how you are feeling. Chances are they probably have some reservations too. It is good to discuss these feelings and thoughts with someone you can trust who can provide you with advice, support and a listening ear. Many workplaces now also have access to professional supports to help you learn and practise proven relaxation techniques.
What we know about worry and fear, in particular ‘anticipatory fear’, is that negative thinking makes situations feel much worse than they actually are. A good habit to get into is to become aware of the quality of your thoughts. 
To do this, simply listen to your body, and regularly see what you are feeling – happy, sad, afraid, calm, or relaxed, etc. Recognise if any of these feeling relate to negative thoughts, and if they do, coach yourself out of that way of thinking, by thinking about something else; e.g. like the opposite of that thought. Or, if it is a thought about the future, remind yourself that you can’t predict the future and therefore this thought is not helpful.
For your first week back in the office, at the end of every day, write down how you felt during the day. There may have been times when you felt overwhelmed. Can you remember what might have caused this? What made you feel better? Keeping a note of these things will help you to understand what works for you. There may also have been moments that you really enjoyed. Who were you with? What were you doing? Reading over these notes at the end of each day and week will help you to mentally prepare for the week following, until soon you will fall into a routine that works well for you. 
Most importantly during this readjustment phase back to the office environment, be kind and patient to yourself. Feelings of nervousness are completely normal; remember everybody is in the same boat. You have overcome a very challenging year and returning to the office is the next natural step. It also signals a return to a life pre- COVID, that things are getting better and that we can once again enjoy many of the great things we have missed out on. 
For more information visit the Allianz Partner’s Global Working From Home Survey