Back to the office: 6 expert tips to prepare you for the transition from home to the workplace

Feeling reluctant to leave the house or anxious about interacting with people? Here’s how to come to terms with the new routine

Feeling fear, dread or apprehension at the thought of returning to the office is normal, say experts. Unsplash
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If you’ve been asked to return to the office after months of working from home, chances are you’re having mixed feelings.

On one hand, going back to work represents some semblance of normality. On the other, you might be feeling anxious about physical contact, sad about seeing less of your family or irritated about the change of routine.

To those dealing with this mixed bag of emotions, experts say one thing – it’s completely normal.

“For those who feel overwhelmed, these feelings are valid. Psychologically, the walls of our homes have come to represent a physical fortress against Covid-19,” explains Dr Robert Chandler, clinical psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia.

“With the virus still present in our society, it is understandable that people may feel fear, dread or apprehension at the thought of returning to the office.”

This fear may present itself in new ways. Dr Prateeksha Shetty, clinical psychologist at RAK Hospital, says there has been a rise in cases of “health anxiety” over the past few months, with people developing palpitations and panic attack-like symptoms when having to physically interact with people.

"This is understandable as people can't see the virus, and can't know who is carrying it. The slightest change in their body, and they are wondering if they have Covid-19. They Google their symptoms and things only get worse from there," she explains. "It has led to more obsessive behaviour."

Feeling worried, irritated or upset about going back to the office? Here are some ways to cope.

1. Acknowledge what you are feeling

Chandler encourages people to notice and name what they are feeling. "Think along the lines of 'I notice I am feeling anxiety about leaving my children, but also notice I feel some excitement in terms of reconnecting with colleagues face-to-face'," he says. "Avoid beating yourself up for what you are thinking or feeling. Acknowledge those thoughts, and return to the present moment and get on with leading a rich and fulfilling day, regardless of the changes."

2. Focus on what you can control

Psychologically, the walls of our homes have come to represent a physical fortress against Covid-19, say experts. Unsplash

As mentioned by Shetty, having to go outside can be stressful for many. However, she says focusing on factors that are inside our control can ease anxiety.

“For many, working from home is no longer an option. They have no choice but to challenge their attitude and behaviour,” she says.

“Instead, focus on things you can do to stay safe. Research and follow proper World Health Organisation guidelines regarding hand washing, wearing gloves and masks.”

Doing adequate research will also stop excessive behaviour, she says.

3. Be in the moment and take things as they come

“Much like how we invited people to prepare psychologically to stay at home, the same principles apply for returning to work; trying to remain present, grounded and in the moment,” says Chandler. “When we spend endless time considering what the future might hold, how the office is going to be different, or how we will miss our children, we lose touch with what is happening now right in front of us.”

That isn’t to say practical planning should not be done for the new normal, but rather, once the planning is over, return to the present.

Asma Hilal Lootah, founder of The Hundred Wellness Centre in Dubai, recommends a grounding technique to increase mindfulness and stop unsettling thoughts. “Take a deep breath and become observant of your surroundings. Look for five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste.

“Behind every feeling there is a thought or belief, and we can choose to change this to give us an empowering feeling,” she says.

4. Take a few days to ease yourself into the new normal

Shetty recommends taking time to get used to the back-to-work routine, much like teachers do right before a new school year. This includes returning to the previous sleep cycle and eating at normal intervals.

However, just because things are seemingly going back to normal, that is no reason to throw caution to the wind. Social-distancing measures, as well as health and safety precautions, should still be followed at all times.

Because of these factors, Chandler says it’s less about going back to an old routine, and more about navigating a new one. “Home situations or financial circumstances may have changed in the past four months. In addition, for many, returning to the office may only be a part of the new routine, as many clients say their job will feature a mixture of office-based and home-based employment going forward.

“Assuming that one can simply return to the old way of doing things may be naive. Be open-minded to your new routine, and find your way with it,” he says.

5. Adapt to the new environment

If you’re looking at a massive change from your current routine, try and keep other traditions you enjoy as constants. Unsplash

Given the status quo, it’s easy to resort to self-pity when asked to change your routine yet again. But being able to adapt with the constant changes that 2020 has thrown at us can actually make us better, Chandler points out.

“While many of us thrive on routine, there is good research to support the idea that people who are adaptive, welcome change and see it as an opportunity, tend to experience increased psychological well-being and reduced mental ill-health.”

If you're looking at a massive change from your current routine, try to keep other basic traditions you enjoy as constants. These could include an exercise routine or reading a book before bedtime.

6. Focus on the positive

Shetty highlights that people can have a tendency to focus on the negative, especially with the pandemic. “For example, we remember the number of new cases instead of the recovery rate,” she says.

“When people first started hearing about Covid-19, it was like an apocalypse. But it’s been months, and we’re still here. We are resilient and we will bounce back. You just have to remember that you can overcome this as long as you stand together as a community.”

To focus on the positive, Chandler recommends identifying the good aspects of your new routine.

“At the end of each day, name one or two things that have been positive about the return to the office to retain a balanced perspective.”