Want to Make Your Return to the Office Less Stressful? Try These 5 Tips From a Therapist

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Your boss says it's almost time to put away the sweatpants and head back to the office. But many workers are still unclear on when, exactly, they'll have to resume that morning commute.

The spread of new Covid-19 variants has delayed many office reopening schedules, with several companies, including Google, pushing back their return-to-office plans to the beginning of 2022. For many workers, the delays are a source of stress that's even led them to coin a nickname for this time of uncertainty: ‘The Great Wait.

"There's been so many moments of up and down where individuals feel like: 'Okay, we've turned a corner,'" says Rachel O'Neill, a licensed therapist and vice president at online therapy provider Talkspace. "Then the rug, in some way, is pulled out from under them."

The pandemic has likely changed the way Americans work forever. Many employers are shifting to a hybrid at-home, in-office work model. Some companies, like Dropbox and Slack, have even said they'll let employees work from home permanently.

For many U.S. workers, though, at least one thing seems to be certain: Full-time work-from-home life will eventually end. Feeling anxious about going back to the office is normal, O'Neill says.

Here are her top five strategies for making your return to work as stress-free as possible:

1. Anticipate change

Take out a pen and paper, and list what you're feeling about returning to the office. "Think about all of the ways that your current work environment will look different when you are face to face again," O'Neill says.

While it may sound basic, O'Neill says anticipating changes can save you a lot of time and stress when you do return. Imagine the office distractions that might come back into your life — conversations with co-workers in the break room, for example.

"Many of us are used to having this fully remote environment where we've been very much in control of our environment," O'Neill says.

Find those potential speedbumps, list them and brainstorm solutions.

2. Map out your first day back

Think about how you'll physically get to work, O'Neill recommends. If you're worried about forgetting what floor your office is on, or changes to your route to work, the tactic might help shake off some of the rust from more than a year of working from home.

"Maybe there's some road construction, or maybe the route looks different in some ways," O'Neill says.

If you have time, and your office is rolling out a "soft open" for employees to slowly transition back, you could even stage a dry run to save yourself from a shock on your first day back.

After months of working in sweatpants or yoga tights, the idea of putting on shoes and slacks to commute into the office might be daunting. But it can't hurt to put a system into place now, O'Neill says: Wake up one day, get fully dressed, go through your commute and work from the office to see if anything feels different.

3. Advocate for what you need

Everyone's needs when they return to work will be different, O'Neill says. And that's alright.

"Oftentimes, individuals look around them and say, 'Well, I feel comfortable doing X, Y and Z, but I noticed that my coworker feels comfortable doing A, B, C. Is there something wrong with me?'" O'Neill says.

Communicate your comfort levels to your employer and co-workers. Set up a meeting or email your supervisor to communicate what you need. And the biggest key, O'Neill says: Do it before the date you're expected to return.

4. Respect others' needs

You might be excited to head back. Not everyone will be.

"We've all been through a collective trauma," O'Neill says. "You shouldn't feel a certain way, or compare your emotional response to someone else's. Everyone is different."

Before Covid's highly contagious delta variant began to spread in the U.S. earlier this year, O'Neill says, she saw individuals excited about going back to professional conferences, traveling for work or gathering in conference rooms with their peers.

But other people dread those moments, she says. Recognizing that your colleagues might not all be in the same headspace — and not forcing anyone into potentially uncomfortable or unsafe situations — could make for a smoother return to office.

5. Save some personal time

You might be tempted to hit the ground running, catching up with colleagues or overloading your calendar with meetings. Pump the brakes.

"To the extent that it's possible, really [give] yourself some time to ease in," O'Neill says.

As tempting as it might be to chat with people face-to-face or feel a "sense of responsibility" to stay busy in your return to the office, O'Neill says, recognize that you have time. A jam-packed schedule could lead to unnecessary stress.

Acknowledge that this is a difficult situation, and a new one for just about everybody, O'Neill says: "Ease back and give yourself permission to feel comfortable doing so."

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