Updated on 4/20/2022

If you’ve been working from home for the past 2 years, or if you had to shutter your business for any length of time during the pandemic, you’re probably feeling a range of emotions about the prospect of going back to a physical office or reopening shop again. 

It’s possible that some of what you’re feeling stems from excitement or relief about returning to some semblance of normal…whatever “normal” looks like in this unprecedented moment. However, you might also be experiencing a good deal of worry and trepidation. 

Beyond just figuring out what this new normal looks like, particularly in terms of the new safety protocols that are necessary to keep yourself, your coworkers, and your customers physically healthy while we navigate the end of the pandemic, there’s also the mental health factor to returning to work that we must consider.

The truth is anxiety about returning to work after an extended leave — whether we’re talking about an absence due to COVID-19, a maternity/paternity leave, or a short-term disability leave — is not uncommon. That anxiety can lead to everything from a dip in productivity to feelings of anxiety, or even depression. Here, we’re exploring what returning to work means for your mental health and offering tips on how to manage your well-being as we begin to head back to the office.

5 Reasons Why You’re Feeling Anxious About the Return to Work

The first, and most important, thing to note is that anxiety about going back to work is normal. There are several reasons why you may be experiencing return to work anxiety. Understanding them can help you cope.  

Sometimes, “going back” is difficult

We’re not just talking about the physical aspects of being back in a familiar space. Rather, the idea of going back to the way things were “before” can be particularly challenging for some of us. Especially when we’re talking in the context of the pandemic, our whole world has been turned upside down. Going back to normal, the way things were before, can feel overwhelming. For some of us, it can even be daunting. Things are different now. We’ve experienced loss, fear, and panic, and we might struggle to return to how things once were. 

Avoidance can breed anxiety  

If you’ve been home for any length of time, the idea of going back to something you’ve been avoiding, whether intentionally or out of necessity (like a mandate), can be distressing. It’s natural to feel anxious about things you’ve avoided for any length of time. Worries about being able to live up to expectations, fear about safety, or even just having to get back into a routine and schedule can feel scary. 

Change is hard

Any time we change something major in our life, it can be difficult. Let’s face it. Change is hard. Transitions are inherent sources of anxiety. After all, familiarity breeds comfort. So, if we’re transitioning back to an office, we’re breaking from the norm and familiarity some of us have had for over two years now. 

It can be compared to starting a new job. Regardless of how long you’ve been in your current position, with your current company, returning after a long hiatus to the actual office space can be enough to induce anxiety in many of us.

You might have loved working from home

Working from home was a silver lining for many of us during the pandemic. So many people found they were wildly more productive in the comfort and relaxed pace of their own environment. Removing stressful portions of the workday — like lengthy, traffic-ridden commutes, dealing with road rage, the expense of dry-cleaning business professional clothing, having to get dressed up every day, exhausting travel, or even just having to pack meals or eat out often — were found by many to be a welcome relief. 

You might be feeling a sense of loss at the thought of having to go back to the hustle and bustle of corporate office life or retail or service-oriented work environments. 

There’s been a shift in social boundaries

Before COVID, most of us had no clue about our coworkers’ thoughts on things like vaccines, masking mandates, or social distancing. Even political views and ideology seeped into our feelings about the pandemic. Now, there are 2 camps on how we think about life after COVID. Social boundaries can become tricky, and navigating how to respect each other’s feelings has never been more critical to getting back to a peaceful work environment. 

In an odd way, we also know more about our coworkers than we ever would have pre-2020. Thanks to 2-plus years of Zoom calls, most of us have now seen our peers’ homes, their children, their pets, and what their personal sense of style and decor is. This can be seen as a conduit to become closer, to have a better understanding of each other — or it might be seen as an uncomfortable and intrusive breach of privacy. Either way, we’ve all had new, perhaps unintended interactions with those we work with. These personal insights might cause anxiety about returning to work for many people. 

“Recognize that your fear, anxiety, or sadness are valid and something that may be affecting many of us while returning to work. Be respectful of others and their ideas, but most of all, be supportive of your feelings and needs. You are going through a transition process, and just like any other change, it affects us as a loss. Having to readjust to change requires time and patience.”

Talkspace therapist Cynthia V. Catchings, LCSW-S

8 Ways to Cope with Return-to-Work Anxiety

What can we do to ease the transition back into working life? Research and experts assure us there are a number of things we can do to ease anxiety and help us come to terms with the fact that we’re going to have to return to work. Below you’ll find some of the top ways you can cope with anxiety about going back to work.

1. Find structure

Ohio’s Department of Health recommends embracing a return to structure: “If you can, try to get into your work routine at home before physically returning — wake up at the normal time, get bathed and dressed as you would normally, and try to return to your normal timeline during the day.”

2. Focus on your sleep schedule 

Sleep is another big one: a good night’s rest can make a huge difference to our mood during the day. Make an effort to get enough sleep and be diligent about your sleep schedule, at least for the first few weeks after you return to work. 

3. Take breaks

CDC guidelines about returning to work also recommend taking breaks during your workday to stretch or to check in with coworkers. 

“If you debate between emailing / calling clients and taking a 10 min break, remind yourself that you can do both. They are equally important.”

Talkspace therapist Cynthia V. Catchings, LCSW-S

4: Practice self care

It’s not all about the hours you’re at the office. Spend time outdoors and be sure you’re taking the time you need for self care and to do things you enjoy during non-work hours.

5. Learn and practice mindfulness

Mindfulness meditation is the art of being present. One easy way to achieve the benefits of mindfulness meditation is by using your breath to control your anxiety. You can learn very simple and easy-to-do mindfulness techniques that can help calm your mind, reduce your heart rate, and alleviate some of the anxiety you might be feeling. 

You can also focus on your senses. Think about: what can you hear, smell, or see from where you’re at in the office? What do you feel as you sit in your chair or hold a railing of a stairwell? 

6. Get exercise

Some research has shown that getting consistent exercise can work as well as medication for some people when trying to reduce anxiety. Getting enough exercise can help improve your mood, enhance your health, boost your immune system, and do wonders for the stress you might be feeling about returning to work. Take a walk outside your building, or get up 30 minutes early to get in a quick workout before you start your workday. Try to do this at least a couple times a week.  

7. Respect your needs and comfort zones

Many people are finding that they now have anxiety about being in crowds, whether it be a crowded store, in a subway, or in a conference room. If you feel anxious about being too close to your coworkers, respect that part of yourself that’s asking for distance. When you can, keep enough space between you and others in your office so you feel safe and comfortable. Don’t be afraid to simply move if you need more room between you and the person next to you.

8. Pay attention to mandates, guidelines, and restrictions

The saying goes, when we know better, we do better. Just because you’re back at work doesn’t mean that you don’t need to pay attention to recommended guidelines and restrictions any longer. 

Take note of mask mandates and medical advice coming and going, continue to wash your hands appropriately, keep sanitizer in and around your office, and avoid shaking hands with others if it makes you nervous. If numbers go up and you begin to feel unsafe, take small steps to do what you can so that you feel protected. That might mean wearing a mask again or even requesting a remote workday or time period.

Help Is Always Available

Remember that anxiety can be expected when you’re returning to work, and you won’t be alone in experiencing these emotions. Talking to a non-judgmental friend who you trust or seeking the help of a therapist can be great ways to deal with your anxiety. 

“Remind yourself that you have already gone through changes, and you were able to succeed. You have worked from your place of employment before. Your office or business is not unknown territory for you. Be grateful for the opportunity to go back healthy and make the most out of it.”

Talkspace therapist Cynthia V. Catchings, LCSW-S

If you’re still feeling stressed about returning to work and businesses opening up, a licensed online therapist is a convenient and affordable way to work through these anxieties. You don’t have to spend your life being nervous about work. With help, you can find ways to manage your anxiety about going back to work.

Medically reviewed by: Jill E. Daino, LCSW-R

Reviewed On: June 24, 2020