No one could have ever imagined the stress, loss and uncertainly that we collectively experienced when COVID emerged a year and a half ago. So much was thrown at us, day-after-day, and we've all been forced to face some very real threats, decisions, and sacrifices over the past 16 months. Now that more people are vaccinated and things are slowly starting to open up and move toward "normal" we should be busting out of our homes, setting up in-person work meetings, gathering with everyone we know, and celebrating...
Well, it's not that simple. There is a common sense of trepidation, uncertainty and uncomfortable anticipation among many people - what some are calling "re-entry anxiety." Re-entry anxiety is defined as feeling stressed about getting back to normal life, post-pandemic, and exposing ourselves to in-person situations again. It's expected and normal to feel anxious about this transition, even if we (or others) think we should “just get on with our lives.”
So how does re-entry anxiety play out in our work and career? Everyone has their own comfort (or discomfort) level when it comes to emerging out of our COVID cocoons and back into the workplace. We've been in a holding pattern for a long time, and we've been forced to figure out how to work as safely as possible. Some of us haven't been to our office or interacted with coworkers in-person since the shut-down. What I'm hearing from my career counseling clients is there's a great deal of anxiety and anticipation around going back to the office.
For most of these clients, the concern about returning to work is not because of potential exposure to COVID; Most feel confident that with vaccinations and precautions in place, they and their employer know what to do to stay safe.
The thing is, while we've experienced countless losses, hardships and traumas throughout COVID, people have also recognized the upsides and silver linings that came with our sudden shifts in priorities, the way we work, and the way we've had to live our lives. A recent study from the American Psychological Association found that 73% of Americans mentioned at least one unexpected benefit from the pandemic, including improved relationships, more time with family, more time for self-care, fewer social obligations and no commute.
The anxiety that my clients are feeling right now is mostly about giving up these benefits - and falls into at least one of three buckets:
1. They don't want to give up their flexibility
Many people who've been working from home during COVID are worried about losing some of the positives that have emerged since things shut down and want to hold on to the flexibility and control they've gained over their workday and quality of life.
When COVID hit so abruptly in March 2020, it took people a while to adjust and figure out how to make working from home function, given all their competing roles and responsibilities. But over time, many working individuals and families got into a steady, more balanced groove, and even found that they could build in more quality time to take care of their own needs. The result was feeling less harried and chaotic -- or less trapped in the "hamster wheel" mentality -- and more balanced in general. Without having to commute and shape their schedules around a prescribed eight-to-five workday, some discovered that they could spend more of their day engaging with the things and people that matter most to them.
My clients are worried about losing this control and balance, and right now their anxiety lies in the lack of clarity around what the expectations will be when their office fully re-opens. It's not that they don't want to go back to the office again -- many of them are looking forward to face-to-face time with their colleagues, but they want options for their schedule, flexibility, and work-life balance.
2. They want to stay fully remote
Some clients have decided they don't want to go back in the office at all. They may enjoy their job, but they've found they're much happier as a remote employee, and can be more focused, productive, and at ease in their familiar, controlled home environment (this goes especially for many introverts and those who struggle with social anxiety). The anticipatory anxiety of going back to an overstimulating and distracting work environment makes them feel overwhelmed or panicked.
I've spoken with several clients who struggle with social anxiety who have done quite well, or even thrived during the pandemic lockdown -- It was finally the norm to stay at home, not interact with others, and keep to themselves! One socially anxious client told me "This is the best I've ever felt!" Gone was the stigma of being "the quiet one" at work. But now they're worried that the pressure to speak up in meetings and socialize with colleagues will come back.
But it's not just the socially anxious and introverted who want to stay fully remote. For some, the simple logistics of running a household or managing their lives outside of work simply function better when they’re able to work from home. It's been so convenient to be able to throw a load of laundry in the dryer between meetings, easily schedule a lunchtime doctor appointment, pick up the kids from school, spend extra time prepping dinner, or take the dog for a long walk. This is the work-life balance they've been seeking.
3. They don't like their job and don't want to go back
Lastly, there are those who were generally unhappy in their career or job before the pandemic hit. They've been laying low under the radar, trying to survive day to day, holding on until things normalize to make a career move. Many are grateful that they still have a job given all the upheaval last year. But they're unhappy and dissatisfied all the same, and as they prepare to go back into the office they feel a huge wave of dread. When I speak with these clients, they are ready to jump ship, but with all the unknowns it's pretty scary and at times the anxiety is paralyzing. COVID has given them time and space to step back, reflect upon what's working and what's not, and re-evaluate what they want for themselves in their career and personal life. But taking action toward a big change overwhelms them, and that's where the anxiety comes into play.
Addressing your anxiety and moving forward
As workplaces open back up and you transition away from your COVID work-routine and toward your new normal, you're going to want to take stock of what's working for you and what's not as it relates to your career. If your anxiety symptoms intensify when you start thinking about heading back into the office, your body is letting you know that you'll need to make some changes and/or develop more effective coping strategies for work-related stress and burnout. Here are a few steps you can take to help you do that:
1. Pay close attention to your anxiety triggers
Sometimes when we're feeling really anxious about work, it's hard to pinpoint, specifically, what led to us feel this way. To start identifying your anxiety triggers, take note of:
- Your environment - your surroundings, the people you're with, what you're doing at the time
- Your thoughts - what are you focused on in your mind? Are you ruminating or catastrophizing about worst case scenarios?
- Your self-talk - what kinds of things are you saying to yourself that might be compounding your anxiety?
It’s important to pay attention to these things at the moment you start to feel anxious, rather than waiting until you're overwhelmed by anxiety and panic. If you can catch yourself before you head down an anxiety spiral, noticing in a very intentional and mindful way what is going on for you (again, specifically -) both internally and externally, it will start to give you clues as to what your work-related anxiety triggers are. Write down these triggers and reflect upon what's leading you to feel this way. Then you'll be able to think about what changes or adjustments you want to work on in your job, or whether you'll need to change jobs/careers altogether.
2. Clarify your current priorities
One of the most important things you can do right now as you’re thinking about going back to work is identify, specifically, what positive changes you’ve made since COVID that you want to hold onto. For example, maybe you've been able to fit in a 30-minute walk each morning because you no longer commute; or maybe you're able to eat dinner as a family more often; perhaps you've been able to work in more breaks throughout your workday to stretch and/or let your eyes have a break; or maybe you've finally had the time to read for pleasure. All of these are healthy, self-care strategies that are going to reduce stress and anxiety. Think hard about how you can continue to incorporate these things into your day-to-day routine, and how you might continue to be able to prioritize them as you move forward with your job post-pandemic. The Work-Life Balance Assessment is one tool that can help you visualize, organize and process your priorities, and walk you through a goal-setting activity to help you clarify your specific professional and personal goals.
3. Be open with your supervisor
Employees who want to retain some of their freedom and flexibility in their schedule can have open and honest conversations with their supervisor about maintaining at least one or more work-from-home days to help balance out their schedule. Many employers are expecting to have these discussions with their staff, and there may be more options than you think. In fact, some companies are conducting "stay interviews" to find out what it will take to keep their employees, and many companies are planning on cutting down on office space (and overhead costs) as COVID proved to them that their employees are just as, or even more productive and effective (not to mention happy) when offered more flexible/hybrid schedules. A recent study out of Iceland found that reduced schedules improved these outcomes as well - and this model is being replicated in Spain, New Zealand and at individual companies around the world. So if this is something you want, there's a chance it could be in reach for you, but you have to ask for what you want.
4. Find support
Like most major life challenges, it's key to remember that you are not alone - I have an entire caseload of career counseling clients who are anxious about their career trajectory, especially post-COVID. In fact, there are millions worldwide reassessing and considering leaving their jobs - coined "The Great Resignation." They don't want to be part of the stress-inducing "grind" anymore and simply go through the motions for a paycheck, as their physical health, mental health and relationships suffer.
People are really taking stock and reevaluating what's most important to them in their career, and how they can do meaningful work while also finding happiness and peace in their life. They want purpose and fulfillment. They want flexibility and balance. And why shouldn’t they -- and you -- have those things? The world of work has changed forever, and it's okay to take advantage of this shift in ways that will help you live the life you want.
So go ahead and talk about how you're feeling with your family, your friends, your trusted coworkers. You'll likely find that other people you know have their own re-entry anxiety. Connect with them and brainstorm about what you want to be different, and steps you can take to get there.
If you feel you need professional help, reach out to a career counselor, coach or a licensed psychotherapist (especially if your anxiety has become debilitating). There are trained professionals who know how to help you untangle your anxiety, and take small steps toward feeling better and having what you want for yourself.
Most importantly, be patient with yourself and pay close attention to your work-life balance and mental health needs as we all make this transition into our "new normal'. Just like when things shut down back in March, 2020, it's going to take a while for all of us to adjust.