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Back…to the office

August 2, 2021

The only certainty about life after a pandemic is that there isn’t much certainty. Masks on or off? Six feet of distance or three? Shake hands or nod hello? It depends on who you ask.

Given the changing and conflicting information out there (or the lack of it), it’s no surprise that after a year (or more) at home, the prospect of returning to a building filled with other human beings is stoking office workers’ anxiety. A 2021 American Psychological Association survey found that 48 percent of vaccinated respondents were still apprehensive about face-to-face interactions.

If you’re among those facing a return to your workplace and aren’t sure how you’ll handle it, take a deep breath and read through this collection of suggestions to help you prepare for office re-entry.

Before you return

Do some mental preparation
. Psychologists use imagery to help people cope with anxiety-inducing situations. It may help you to spend a bit of time now imagining some of the scenarios you fear encountering at the office, and how you’ll deal with them. That can help you prepare emotionally if they do happen.

Have a dress rehearsal. If you can, go into the office before your return date. Look around and see what’s changed. Sit at your desk. Do a little tidying up after the year of disuse. Stock your drawer with masks and sanitizer if you’re still using them. Organize your desk, add some updated photos and maybe a new plant if you’re allowed. Make it welcoming for your first day.

Reset your sleep schedule. It wasn’t just stress that played havoc with many sleep schedules. When you can work late into the night, roll out of bed five minutes before starting time or grab a catnap at lunchtime, it’s easy to get into bad sleep habits. A week or so before your return date, gradually adjust to your new/old schedule by 15- or 30-minute increments each day.

Once at work

Wear a mask if you choose. If you live and work in an area where masking is based on an honor system, how can you know who’s being honorable? You can’t. So, if you’re more comfortable wearing a mask during the day, don’t apologize and don’t let anyone tell you that you shouldn’t. It’s your decision, full stop.

Keep washing and sanitizing. Even though touch is a less frequent method of COVID-19 transfer, wash your hands often. As a bonus, it will help protect you and those around you from other bacteria and viruses. It also doesn’t hurt to wipe down your work area with sanitizer wipes at the beginning of your day—especially if you share a desk.

Set your boundaries and stick to them. If you’re not comfortable with hugs or handshakes yet, it’s okay to say no. If you’re not up to going out into crowds with co-workers, that’s your right, too. Explain to them what feels comfortable and safe for you in a clear, kind and non-judgmental manner—and be willing to understand others’ thoughts and boundaries, too. Use “I” statements to let them know why your boundaries are important to you: e.g., “I have little ones at home who aren’t vaccinated yet, and I don’t want to risk bringing something home to them.” Honesty is the best way to re-establish a respectful and compassionate working relationship. 

Remember, some anxiety is normal. Even if they don’t say it out loud, your co-workers probably have anxieties, too. Allow yourself some time to adjust—after all, your surroundings may be familiar, but the world is definitely not the same as it was the last time you walked out the door. And if you do find yourself struggling, please don’t hesitate to talk to your doctor or mental health professional, who can help you take the steps needed to ease your way into your next normal.

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