Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 6/4/2022
Many of us have been working from home through the COVID-19 pandemic. But as COVID-19 infection rates go down and vaccination numbers go up, many offices have either reopened or will be soon.
The result: some people are feeling major anxiety about returning to work. But post-pandemic life at the office isn’t the only thing that can cause return-to-work anxiety. Any sizable absence from the office can induce it — like coming back after maternity leave or after being on disability.
Feeling like you might be dealing with return to work anxiety? Read more about how it manifests and what you can do about it.
If you’ve been working from home for a long time, you’ve probably gotten used to it and feel quite comfortable. In fact, perhaps your little home office feels like a cocoon that shields you from all the craziness of the outside world.
So, the idea of returning to the hustle and bustle of your commute, or to the office in general, might be quite overwhelming. Some may call this “return to work anxiety,” but it’s also known as “reentry anxiety.”
When it comes to COVID-19 specifically, many people fear that by leaving their house and returning to the office, they’ll be at a higher risk for contracting it — and that spikes anxiety.
Others may dread going back to an office because they’re concerned about social interactions or lacking a sense of control over who we’re interacting with. It’s been a while since some of us have had the type of socializing done at work. Being out of practice may cause some uneasiness.
One of these things or both combined can lead to dread or anxiety around returning to the office.
Return to work anxiety can cause normal nervousness. Perhaps you feel a little anxious about it, but it doesn’t totally affect your day-to-day life.
But if your anxiety does affect your daily life, you may be dealing with an anxiety disorder. If you are, you’re not alone. In the United States, approximately 40 million adults deal with anxiety disorders.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is one of the more common anxiety disorders. It tends to be diagnosed if someone has trouble managing their anxiety more often than not over a six-month time period.
As we mentioned above, the idea of returning to social interactions at the office can also cause anxiety. This might be especially true if you deal with Social Anxiety Disorder. This type of disorder is defined by feeling overwhelmed in social situations — from watercooler gatherings to happy hours and beyond. Some people also call this social phobia.
People with social anxiety disorder may experience the following symptoms: blushing, a racing heart, stomach aches and more.
In addition to the above-mentioned anxiety disorders, there are a few others. They are:
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD): Those with OCD can’t escape recurrent thoughts and compulsive behaviors — like washing your hands repeatedly or checking to make sure the door is locked over and over.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): After trauma (think being assaulted or surviving a car accident), some develop PTSD.
Panic Disorder: Intense fear, panic attacks and heart palpitations are markers of this form of anxiety.
If you are experiencing a feeling of anxiety about returning to work, there are a number of things you can do to try and ease your mental state:
Do a dry run: It’s been a while since you’ve done your commute and you may not even fully recall what your office floor plan is. To avoid being overwhelmed on your first day back, try to do a dry run a week or so in advance of your official return. This will help you know what to expect on the day you’re actually scheduled to go back.
Get plenty of sleep: Exhaustion combined with an increased level of anxiety? Not a good idea. Do your best in the weeks before your return to work to get good sleep. This will help give you the energy you need to face the new structure of your workday.
Set boundaries: Still social distancing? That’s okay! Just think about how you’ll want to communicate that before you show up at the office. You could send colleagues an email letting them know you look forward to seeing them in person and letting them know you’ll still be maintaining some distance. Or, figure out what you may say that day. Simply telling people you are choosing to social distance should do the trick.
If your anxiety is more pervasive, you may need to consider other types of treatments. The below treatments are commonly used to help people dealing with anxiety disorders, and may be useful in helping you cope with return to work anxiety.
Therapy is a common treatment for anxiety — and there are a number of different types. To figure out which one might be right for you, it’s best to speak with a mental health provider.
One of the more common forms is Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). In this type of therapy, you will work with a mental health professional to look at patterns that may be increasing your anxiety — then you'll work with your provider to come up with a way to deal with them.
Prescription anxiety medications are another option that can help with anxiety disorders.
To determine if you’re a good candidate for anti-anxiety medication, you’ll work with a healthcare professional. If you are, you may be prescribed medication such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), beta blockers or benzodiazepines.
One thing to know: if you’re hoping to take medication specifically for return to work anxiety, most medications take a bit of time to kick in — so you’ll need to speak with a mental health provider well in advance.
Many people have been working from home for the past few years thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, as many companies start to require employees to return to the office, it’s understandable that the thought of returning to work can create some anxiety.
This is called “return to work anxiety” or “reentry anxiety.” It’s mostly caused by a fear of contracting COVID-19 or by phobias around social interaction.
Thankfully, it’s possible to get a grasp on return to work anxiety. Getting decent rest, doing a dry run of returning to your workspace and setting social distancing boundaries may help.
If you need help beyond that, you may be dealing with an anxiety disorder — like generalized anxiety disorder or social anxiety disorder. If this is the case, you may want to consider therapy or medication.
To determine what’s right for you, schedule a consultation with a health care provider to talk about possible mental health conditions you may be dealing with.