The Stress-Free Way to Go Back to the Office After COVID

illustration of office workers

Verywell / Bailey Mariner

Key Takeaways

  • More than two-thirds of workers say they’re concerned about returning to the office, according to a recent survey.
  • Going back to the office may come with benefits like increased productivity, less loneliness, and firmer boundaries between work and home life.
  • Maintaining a positive outlook, setting personal boundaries, and practicing self-care can help ease anxieties about returning to the office.

After more than a year of remote work brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, many employers are starting to reopen their offices—and workers have mixed feelings. Some relish the idea of collaborating with colleagues in-person and swapping their makeshift home office on their kitchen table for a dedicated workspace.

But those looking forward to returning to the office seem to be in the minority. Around two-thirds of workers say they’re worried about the transition, according to a survey of 1,000 full- and part-time workers conducted by Envoy in mid-February. As many as 29% value the flexibility and safety of remote work so much that they say they’ll quit their jobs if their employers insist they come back to the office.

Let’s take a closer look at why workers feel so stressed out about going back to the office, along with ways to make the transition easier, according to mental health experts.

Mixed Feelings About Going Back to the Office

Working from home provided people with a way to continue to earn a living without risking exposure to the coronavirus. Many workers fear that they’ll be less safe if they’re forced to commute on public transportation and spend 9:00 to 5:00 in close quarters with colleagues again, says Dawn Kamilah Brown, MD, a child, adolescent, adult, and sports psychiatrist, and owner and chief executive officer of ADHD Wellness Center and Mental Healthletics.

Dawn Kamilah Brown, MD

Most of my patients are concerned if it will be safe to return to work, considering that the majority of Americans have not yet been vaccinated. Some have expressed concerns about being exposed to the coronavirus and, at worst, getting very sick and dying.

— Dawn Kamilah Brown, MD

“Most of my patients are concerned if it will be safe to return to work, considering that the majority of Americans have not yet been vaccinated. Some have expressed concerns about being exposed to the coronavirus and, at worst, getting very sick and dying,” Brown says. “Many have questions if there will be new safe-at-work training, requirements, and guidelines for all employees to follow.”

On top of health and safety concerns, many employees also worry about losing the benefits of working remotely. If you're vaccinated, this may already be your biggest concern.

“Most of my patients who are able to work from home value the perks of flexibility and zero commute time,” says Rashmi Parmar, MD, adult and child psychiatrist with Community Psychiatry. “Some of them have reported more productivity while working by themselves at home, and perceive social interactions at work as either distressing or distracting.”

Feelings about returning to the office aren’t all bad, though. Many workers are looking forward to reconnecting with colleagues and a sense of normalcy in the workplace, says Renee A. Exelbert, PhD, a licensed psychologist and founding director of The Metamorphosis Center for Psychological and Physical Change.

“Some are very eager to return to normal, especially if they have been caring for young children at home during work hours, and are craving adult stimulation and routine,” she says. “By and large, I have seen the majority of individuals express a desire for some sort of hybrid work model going forward, such as three days in the office, two days at home.”

Her patients’ desires for a hybrid work model echo the findings of a survey of 1,200 U.S. office workers and 133 executives conducted by PwC in late 2020. It showed that 55% of workers prefer to continue working remotely at least three days per week after COVID-19 risks subside.

Easing the Transition Back to the Office

Whether you’re returning to the office full time or just a few days per week, the disruption to your daily routine can feel daunting. All of a sudden, you’ll be interacting with far more people than usual, and you’ll probably need to adjust your schedule to accommodate your commute. How can you lessen the stress that comes with this change in your work?

Start by focusing on the positives that can come with going back to the office, says Dr. Parmar.

“It is definitely hard to give up the flexibility and ease of working from home, however, there are several advantages of resuming work in an office that the home environment lacks,” she says.

The benefits may include rebuilding social connections and curbing the loneliness many experienced during lockdown, fewer distractions that reduce your productivity, and a firmer boundary between your work and home life.

“From a career perspective, it will show your commitment to your work and your flexibility to go through another transition, which will be appreciated by your job,” adds Yasmine Saad, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and founder and chief executive officer of Madison Park Psychological Services.

Rashmi Parmar, MD

It is definitely hard to give up the flexibility and ease of working from home, however, there are several advantages of resuming work in an office that the home environment lacks.

— Rashmi Parmar, MD

It’s totally normal to feel some social anxiety when thinking about going back to the office and interacting with a group of co-workers, experts say. Taking a gradual approach to socializing can help ease the transition, says Dr. Parmar.

“Start connecting with individuals or smaller groups of people first before moving on to interactions with an entire team,” she says. “Start building your support network at work again and specifically prioritize spending time with coworkers who are supportive and get along well with you. Offer to have a socially distanced meeting in person outside of work or a casual coffee break while working to connect with them.”

Keep in mind that the safety precautions of the pandemic upended social norms, like shaking hands. Figuring out what feels comfortable to you now and developing a plan to respect your personal boundaries can help you feel safer, says Dr. Brown.

“Having a plan on what approach feels safe, comfortable, and avoids feeling awkward is ideal,” she says. “Modeling this approach with co-workers can also set the expectations for how they are to engage with you. This makes it easier for everyone to focus on the work they love.”

Finally, talk to your boss to see if you can continue clocking in remotely—at least for a portion of the week—so you can maintain some flexibility, if it has been working for you.

“State your desire and come up with a plan that would work for your boss,” says Dr. Saad. “Show your boss how it will benefit your job to have these needs met. For example, you will be more efficient and productive without having to commute.”

Practicing Self-Care Amid Change

Even as you work to make the transition easier, returning to the office may feel overwhelming at times. Practicing self-care can help you cope with the stress of change.

“Start getting into the routine of a regular workday a week beforehand to allow a smoother transition,” Dr. Parmar suggests. “Follow a healthy routine with timely meals, consistent sleep timings, adequate physical activity, and relaxation time. Set aside breaks at work at regular intervals to destress and rejuvenate yourself during work hours.”

She also recommends being mindful of warning signs of stress, such as shortness of breath, headaches, heaviness in your chest, raised heart rate, and general body aches, and taking steps to address it in real time.

“Stock your desk with things that can relieve stress, such as a stress ball, a calming essential oil diffuser, a favorite snack, or framed photos of your loved ones,” she says.

Renee A. Exelbert, PhD

Try not to feel guilty if you are not totally thrilled to be back in your office. There will definitely be some desirable things absent, and it is OK to feel some sense of loss.

— Renee A. Exelbert, PhD

Try not to put pressure on yourself to perform at peak-pandemic levels right away, adds Dr. Exelbert. “Getting back to normal, or to a new normal, will take some time. Be patient with yourself as you adjust,” she says. “Try not to feel guilty if you are not totally thrilled to be back in your office. There will definitely be some desirable things absent, and it is OK to feel some sense of loss.”

Just how long the transition takes can vary from person to person. The adjustment period might last anywhere from three weeks to three months, on average, says Dr. Brown.

Reminding yourself that, just like working remotely, going back to the office will eventually feel like a normal part of life—one that comes with advantages, as well as some challenges, that will help you strengthen resilience against the stress of change.

What This Means For You

As more people get vaccinated, employers are beginning to bring workers back to the office after more than a year of working from home. The transition likely won’t be easy, though, and many workers are afraid they’ll lose certain perks and be less safe if they shift away from remote work.

Consider talking to your boss about trying a hybrid approach that keeps you working remotely, at least some of the time. If you need to come into the office, try to focus on the potential benefits, like reduced loneliness and improved productivity. Setting personal boundaries, practicing self-care, and taking a gradual approach to socializing can also help alleviate anxieties.

Get Advice From The Verywell Mind Podcast

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares how you can build mental strength after the pandemic.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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