Brainz Contributor: Managing Anxiety When Returning To The Office



Having worked the last two years from home, many workers now experience anxiety when asked to return to their offices full-time. This nervousness is natural, as some staffers may have bosses or coworkers who are overly observant or critical of their new work habits. Some employees may even feel pressured to conform to the old ways despite having developed new, and possibly, better work habits.


This transition can make things worse for those who already had pre-existing mental health disorders (and found relief at home). Returning to environments with open floor plans, less privacy, and artificial fluorescent lighting is an adjustment that should be made thoughtfully.


In an ideal situation, one would not have to “manage” anxiety but avoid it altogether. However, for those times when it is unavoidable, employees can use many coping methods —such as taking a break for fresh air or a brief meditation to quiet racing thoughts — to work at optimal levels. “If we learn to face the anxiety head-on, rather than pretending it doesn't exist, we'll enter any situation — whether at work, home, or any other place — being better equipped to handle it,” said Dr. Makida Bey, anxiety therapist and coach at the Resilience Therapy Center, LLC.


Many people will be anxious


Stress is fueled by disruption, and the return to the physical work environment is yet another major upheaval. After a year and a half of online meetings and a morning journey from bed to a home office, returning to the actual company office will be a significant adjustment for everyone. Just remember, you may walk back into work feeling apprehensive and unsure of how you and others will react. “Even though walking in may make you feel anxious, it doesn't define WHO YOU ARE. Nor does it dictate what you are there to do, which is work together for a common solution. Working with others doesn't make a whole lot of sense without learning to work together. Being honest about our interdependence to gain productivity and to reach our goals is better for all of us. Knowing this will ease anxiety about returning to work” said Dr. Bey.


Dr. Judson Brewer, director of research and innovation at Brown University's Mindfulness Center and author of "Unwinding Anxiety," stated, "Our brains don't like uncertainty." Even at the height of the pandemic, he added, the routines that many of us built while working from home — a morning stroll, an afternoon cup of tea, making lunch — provided a patchwork feeling of certainty. Workers in the office have less control. "Anxiety is fear plus uncertainty," he explained.


It's critical to figure out which aspects of returning to work make you nervous. Suppose you're worried about taking public transportation, for example, before your return-to-work date. In that case, Dr. Franklin Schneier, co-director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at the New York State Psychiatric Institute and a psychiatry lecturer at Columbia University Medical Center, suggests "rehearsing" a portion of your commute. To re-acclimate yourself, take the metro for a few stops or go to the area near your office building and stroll about.


Overall, Dr. Joe Bienvenu, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, stated that implementing self-care behaviors like exercising, getting adequate sleep, and reducing alcohol use can assist in the run-up to the return date.


Have calming tools at hand


Prepare coping methods ahead of time if you expect to suffer symptoms like panic attacks, dissociation, flashbacks, or general anxiety at work.


According to Dr. Brewer, these tools shouldn't be difficult or need too many steps to memorize. You can maintain a list of your coping methods on a sticky note at your desk. To deal with worry, he suggests a simple "five-finger breathing" routine: Spread your fingers out in front of you with one hand. Take your time tracing the outside of your entire hand with your other hand's index finger, breathing in as you trace up a finger and out when you trace down.


According to him, this activity helps people anchor themselves in their immediate bodily experience while also slowing down their breathing. It's also fast and unobtrusive.


The American Psychological Association offers a quick body scan and a basic breathing practice as two grounding exercises you may undertake at your desk. You may also focus your brain and disentangle rushing thoughts by focusing on a simple job, such as counting backward by three in your head.


Small sensory stimulations might also help you stay in the present moment. According to Dionne Hart, a psychiatrist in Minneapolis, if you have access to the office freezer, run to the restroom, sprinkle cold water on your face, or place an ice pack on your wrist.


Dr. Brewer said that cognitive methods provide a valuable framework for dealing with worry. You can tell yourself that panic attacks aren't hazardous and that you've always managed to get through them before.


Help may be on the way


If you're having trouble at work, you could request a change to make the transition back a little easier. The Americans with Disabilities Act protects workers with physical and mental disabilities. If you have a mental health problem, you have the right to request a reasonable

accommodation.


According to Darcy Gruttadaro, director of the American Psychiatric Association Foundation's Center for Workplace Mental Health, the term "fair" is crucial, yet it can be difficult to define. "It's a bargaining process," Ms. Gruttadaro explained. If the employer considers the accommodation request is unreasonable, they must prove it; the employee must demonstrate that they can execute their work tasks with accommodation.


She clarified, "It's not just anything that goes…If the employer considers it will be an unnecessary hardship or expensive, and they can prove it, they are not required to give that accommodation."


According to Cheryl Bates-Harris, a senior disability advocacy expert at the National Disability Rights Network, reasonable accommodations include a more flexible work schedule, time off for medical visits and treatment, and a calmer work atmosphere.

You are not required to reveal a mental health handicap at work. Still, if you believe you require accommodations to do your job more effectively, you can provide a note from a doctor or therapist, she added.


Ms. Gruttadaro suggested approaching your boss directly about accommodation if you have a supportive boss and feel comfortable admitting a mental health problem. You can discuss with your company's human resources department if you don't feel comfortable approaching your manager.


Employees can use tools from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Job Accommodation Network to determine who qualifies under the Americans With Disabilities Act.


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