Anxiety and returning to the office

From having positive coping mechanisms to finding an ally in your supervisor, there are many strategies that can help if you're feeling anxious about going back to the office
by Bethan Rees


As the Covid-19 vaccination rollout around the world continues, more offices are beginning to open up. "That's good news for people who are eager to get back to their desks," writes Amy Gallo in a Harvard Business Review article, "but what about the people who are anxious about returning to in-person work?"

"Maybe they have health issues that would put them at risk (even with broad vaccine adoption). Or they’ve got caretaking responsibilities that prevent them from going in. Perhaps they’ve found that they’re happier and more productive working at home, or they had a long commute they’re content to no longer endure."

Not everyone is keen to go back to the office, according to a March 2021 survey by Harvard Business School Online and research company City Square Associates. The study of 1,500 US-based professionals who have worked remotely at least part of the time since March 2020 finds that 81% of respondents would prefer not to go back to the office at all or have a hybrid schedule going forward, 27% of whom say they'd like to work from home full time.

You may feel anxious about returning to the workplace for several reasons. In a blog for Bupa UK, specialist nurse adviser Fatmata Kamara says you may feel worried about the risk of Covid-19, uneasy about mixing with other people, uncertain about changes to the office and nervous about doing your job. However, she recommends reminding yourselves of some of the positives, such as being able to see colleagues, separating your work life from home life and getting back into a routine.

Expectations of the office

Kamara recommends finding out about any changes to the workplace to make it more Covid-secure, for example, extra handwashing facilities and the use of screens and barriers to reduce contact between colleagues. "Knowing about these measures will give you a clearer understanding of what to expect. They will hopefully ease any fears you might have," she says. This could also be a good time to discuss potential changes to working patterns or hours, for example, "working flexible hours to avoid the busiest times on public transport".

In a Forbes article, career coach Ashley Stahl suggests some ways to make your return to the office potentially easier. "Connect with co-workers," she says. "Start talking with close colleagues about their feelings and expectations with regards to reopening or returning to the office. If you find you share any concerns, you’ll have a strong case to bring with your shared perspectives." She also says if you are offered a hybrid working model, think about how much time you want to spend there, and how comfortable you are being there.

Worries tend to stem from uncertainty or the unknown, says Dr Renju Joseph, a consultant psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Woodbourne in a blog for the Priory Group. So, speaking with your employer and having "all the appropriate information as well as answers to any questions you have can help to ease your worries about potential risks and dangers", he says.

In an article by Gwen Moran for Fast Company, Moran quotes David Rock, CEO of the Neuroleadership Institute, who echoes Dr Joseph's point that feeling out of control can spur feelings of anxiety. Rock advises trying to "maximise how much control you feel in a situation" and to find out what measures are being taken to keep employees safe.

Exposing the fear

Moran explains that "exposure therapy is essentially doing one small thing to help you face your fear". She quotes Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at New York Presbyterian Hospital, Weill-Cornell School of Medicine: "Once you feel okay doing that thing, you move on to the next". Moran suggests if your employer has notified you with a date to return to the office, and you're concerned, "try scheduling an hour to go in and be in the space or set up your workspace".

Look after yourself

In the Bupa UK blog, Kamara says that "making time to look after your own wellbeing can really help ease feelings of anxiety", and suggests setting aside some time to unwind, practising mindfulness and breathing techniques, and doing something enjoyable such as listening to music, reading, or exercising.

Being kind to yourself is a form of self-care too. In the Priory Group blog, Dr Joseph says "it's OK to feel uncertain and distressed … so be kind to yourself ". He also suggests not going from "1 to 100 on your first day back at work", and taking things slowly.

You may find that maintaining a good routine can add a positive structure to your day, too, and "scheduling in moments of happiness, and embracing the good things in our lives" can help make this transition easier and be a welcome distraction from anxiety, he says. "So during the hours when you’re not in work, or in the run-up to you returning to work, spend time doing activities that you really enjoy, and make sure you do them regularly."

Positive coping tactics

Finding ways to cope with anxiety will be valuable to you, and there are some tools you can use that may help, such as this breathing technique, says Dr Joseph:

  • breathe in for four seconds
  • hold your breath for three seconds
  • breathe out for six seconds.

"Make sure that your stomach expands as you take in each breath so that your breathing is deep rather than shallow," he adds.

Positive affirmations could also be a good tool to use "as positive self-talk can help you to move past any negative and anxious thoughts you have about returning to work" says Dr Joseph. Some examples you might use are:

  • I can do this.
  • I am strong and can get through difficult times.
  • It is okay to feel like this.
  • This will not break me.

Having an ally

In the Fast Company article, Moran suggests that having a friend, or an ally at work who you can speak to can help. She quotes workplace expert Chester Elton in the article, who says "sometimes, you will say things one-on-one that you won’t say in a group" and also recommends forming an ally relationship with your supervisor. "I would encourage one-on-ones with your supervisor and develop that ally relationship," he says.

A tip for managers

If you're managing a team who might be anxious about returning to the office, you should find out exactly how they're feeling. In the Harvard Business Review article, Gallo quotes Harvard Business School professor Linda Hill who suggests using anonymous surveys to ask how employees view the return, and you can then use these insights to formulate a plan to make your team feel supported. "For example, if several people mentioned health considerations in your surveys, you can make sure that the team knows precisely what precautions the company is taking to keep staff safe or you can lobby senior leaders to put more preparations in place," writes Gallo.

If you're feeling that your anxiety is becoming more of a long-term issue, in the Bupa UK blog Kamara recommends finding out if your organisation has any mental health services on offer, or to seek professional help through your GP or another health professional.

The CISI's mental health toolkit also offers resources and methods to consciously incorporate wellbeing in the office and to those who need support.

Seen a blog, news story or discussion online that you think might interest CISI members? Email
Published: 09 Jul 2021
  • Training, Competence and Culture
  • working from home
  • career development
  • Career advice
  • mindfulness
  • mental health
  • anxiety
  • Covid-19

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