by Deepak Santhiraj, Licensed Clinical Social Worker
Mastering Anxiety Challenges When Returning to Work
As many organizations and workplaces are calling employees back to the office this fall, feelings of overwhelm and unease are becoming very commonplace. Many are uncertain about the reality of being able to “return to normal” since much of our pandemic circumstances seem to still ebb and flow. Employees are needing to re-learn how to ease their re-entry back into their work space and experience the delight of being present at work again. Some are calling the existential dread of returning back to the work week as the “Sunday Scaries” to better describe a Sunday evening feeling of concluding their freedom and “getting back into the grind.” Since early 2016 Twitter users have started to initiate reflections on this matter to highlight the anticipatory malaise about the upcoming week days ahead. These individuals agree that they would even shrink in their stature and personal composure to fit back into the mold of their job description during the work week. A 2018 LinkedIn online study demonstrated that over 80 percent of working American adults had been experiencing this same phenomenon about the upcoming work week on Sundays.
Typically by 3:58PM, some symptomatic concerns of the Sunday Scaries would manifest. “This feeling, whether we call it anxiety, worry, stress, fear, whatever, it’s all really the same thing,” says Jonathan Abramowitz, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Psychologically, it’s a response to the perception of some sort of threat.” The perceived threat varies—it might be getting up early, or being busy and “on” for several days in a row—but the commonality, Abramowitz says, is that “we jump to conclusions” and “underestimate our ability to cope.” These circumstances can be better described within the umbrella of a low-grade existential dread that asks a two-fold reflection, “Have I been productive enough? Have I calmed down and relaxed enough during these two days?” Along with keeping up with child care and other common household responsibilities such as cooking and keeping up for financial stability during the work week, it becomes evident that the Sunday Scaries are also a by-product of many that feel an overwhelming pressure to keep up. In contrast to the Golden Age of America’s capitalism in the post World War II era during our national economic boom with a multitude of jobs and availability in the workforce, people now are wondering more greatly about their work-related performance as well as how they would cover for their medical insurance if they lost the job. Weekends are now being seen as an opportunity for both productivity and relaxation – relaxing enough to become recharged to be more productive during the work week.
Even with the pandemic transitions back to work that are currently occurring this fall, we acknowledge that transitions can naturally spike anxiety-related thoughts and increase emotional exhaustion. Entering into familiar situations establishes a sense of psychological safety and comfort while maintaining predictability for employees. As part of our adaptive bias, we consistently look out for threats that could impact this sense of psychological safety and security in the workplace. Learning the cultural norms, new skills, understanding brand new protocols, and many other facets of entering into a new job is likened to the increase of stress during the first 6 month-period of a new job. It can be altogether typical to feel this adjustment stress of returning back to the workplace after an extended season of remote work at home.
Getting back to previously experienced and known activities can be nerve-wracking initially, but the anxiety will eventually subside as employers expect their employees to return to the office this fall. Activities that require routine performance can maintain anticipatory anxiety at first, but re-entering back into routine as it was before in the workplace can be altogether beneficial. Returning back to routine activities will allow for the anticipatory anxiety of getting back to work fade. Anxiety creeps in during naturally “avoided” activities that people must return to after a period of separation from it or taking an extended break period.
As part of the social milieu of return-to-work mandates that many are experiencing, they observe that social boundaries and work relationships are evolving. Office cultures and norms have various Covid parameters in place but also understand that circumstances and environmental features are different across workspaces. Although employees alongside their employers may be eager to return to the office for greater productivity and a collective sense of togetherness, it becomes mission-critical to practice the pursuit of behaviors that promote positive emotions at work, pursue acceptance of one another, and maintain a spirit of unity to understand each other’s perspective and experience. Managing the shift back to the office can demand an inventory of the good habits and practices that you adopted during the pandemic while working from home. Habits and routines are easily maximized and influenced by the surrounding environment. These might include regular movement breaks during peak peaks to increase productivity, having a more healthier lunch, creating a task priority list, and knowing effective strategies to manage interruptions more readily.
Here are several anxiety-reducing strategies to help navigate the return-to-work process:
- Allow muscle memory to take over and perform highly familiar tasks. We all crave a sense of meaningful accomplishment at the end of the work day, and focusing on writing the next article or newsletter and shooting a round of emails about the upcoming presentation you already worked on can be altogether absorbing while repositioning you into an enjoyable workflow.
- Pursue performing an activity or task that you previously avoid, and accomplish this on a low-profile work day in the weekly schedule. This might include a task that you neglect when not at the office and will not attend to during your time off. Individuals that generally feel fearful, misguided, and low on their personal confidence are usually the ones to retreat and withdraw. Doing that task which you have avoided creates competency and provides an antidote to the negative mood and thought spiral.
- Most clinicians now agree in the medical community that productivity has been linked to boosting personal mood and emotional resilience. On the more overwhelming days when returning back to the office, focus on accomplishing 1/2 or 2/3 of your typical workload. This aim during days of overwhelm can prevent procrastination and the general negativity that ensues. It can also help in the recovery after taking an emotional hit on a more draining day that was burdensome.
- People typically distract themselves or drown themselves in a mountain of work when experiencing overwhelm. Returning back to your work space can add a torrent of other emotions. Rather than soldiering through your workload and return-to-work turmoil, identify ways to productively manage these emotions through emotion regulation.
- Connect with co-workers and invite them into your personal narrative. Loneliness causes isolation, increases stress, and decreases work productivity. Sharing with at least one co-worker can create mutual understanding and manufacture a sense of unexpected relief from personal stress.
Returning back to the workplace can have many effects associated with experiences of overwhelm and more difficult emotions this fall. There are options to allow you to recover faster, choose emotional resilience, and demonstrate personal confidence to handle the upcoming circumstances.