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  1. Blog
  2. Mental Health

Return to Office, Maybe? How to Reduce Stress & Maintain Flexibility Amid Changing Routines

When to talk to your boss and when to start job searching

Woman preparing to return to office after working from home
Photo courtesy of Anastasia Shuraeva

This article is part of InHerSight's Working During Coronavirus series. As the coronavirus pandemic continues, find helpful advice here on working remotely, job hunting remotely, dealing with anxiety and stress, and staying safe at work if you have to be on-site.

From building home offices to taking coffee breaks with loved ones, many of us have adjusted to a new way of working, but now our routines are changing, again—and we’re not ready. Employers are rethinking the future of work and making or carrying out back-to-office plans, with or without their employees’ input. 

According to Microsoft’s Work Trend Index 2022 report, 50 percent of leaders say their company is already requiring or planning to require full-time in-person work in the year ahead, while 70 percent of workers say they want flexible options. These contrasting views are breeding a new hybrid model, which aims to support flexible work options. The problem is that employees are expected to adjust to these new circumstances, without qualms—and that is no easy feat.

Having to return to the office one day, work from home the next when the pandemic rears its ugly head again, or face the reality of returning to the office full-time after two years of working in your own home is causing significant stress. How do you adjust to these new routines? How do you maintain your flexibility when you’re forced back to the office? How do you care for your mental health in the process?

What to expect when adjusting to a new way of working—again

Not surprisingly, according to a 2022 report from McKinsey & Company, 44 percent of employees believe their mental health will decline when they return to their site of work. Working from home for two years, many of us have changed our attire, our habits, our self-care routines, and our way of working. Returning to the office will shake this up once again.

“Now is the time to reevaluate things to determine how you will move forward,” says Nicole Rankine, PhD, CEO and founder of the COLE Academy of Personal Growth. “Evaluate the things you were doing and determine if you will keep doing them or stop doing them.”

We know life isn’t going back to the way it was before the pandemic. We’ve all evolved and so, too, will the workplace. You can discuss flexibility options with your manager, ask your HR department for updates on return-to-office expectations, and suggest the best arrangements for you, but know that your company’s plans are largely outside of your control.

“When dealing with change, you are likely to experience higher than normal levels of stress, but knowing this beforehand will give you the ability to prepare mentally and physically,” says Rankine. As you face a return to the office, shift your focus to the positives, she says. 

Returning to the office has many incentives. You can interact with your coworkers on a more casual basis. You can enjoy the separation between work and home—and leave your work at the office at the end of the day. You can meet clients for coffee. You can go for walks in a different neighborhood. Considering the benefits of returning to the office can help you maintain your mental health through this transitional time.

You should also incorporate positivity into your day-to-day routine. This can include listening to uplifting podcasts, videos, or music and spending time with people who bring out the best in you, Angela Webb, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist, explains. Focus on the things in your control and take the best steps to make your days as smooth as possible. Webb suggests preparing the day before by making your lunch, setting out your clothes, gathering your work essentials, and ensuring that your kids’ schedules are set. On the morning of, give yourself something to look forward to, like drinking coffee or walking the dog.

“It is okay to feel frustrated, stressed, anxious, or even excited. Feelings are normal, and they serve a purpose. Allow yourself to feel and process through the emotions in a healthy way, which will help you avoid unhealthy behaviors and habits,” Webb says. Talking to a mental health professional can help in implementing healthy coping mechanisms.

Simple ways to lower your stress as your return to office

Even if you mentally prepare for a return to the office, you’re bound to experience some anxiety. This is normal and expected. However, you’ll want to do your best to remove unnecessary stressors and keep your stress levels low. 

Focus on the basics, Webb suggests, and incorporate the following into your workdays, no matter if you’re at home or in the office:

  • Eat healthy, nutritious foods

  • Practice good sleep habits

  • Incorporate exercises into your day

  • Drink water and stay hydrated

  • Take your prescribed medications

  • Prioritize self-care 

“Think of these basics as the foundation of your house. If these concepts are not in place, the house will fall,” says Webb. “Starting with the basics will set you up for the best chance at having a good day.”

You should also take mental health breaks during the day, eat lunch away from your desk, and shut down at a designated time, Rankine says. Do your best to be intentional with your time and protect your life outside of work. 

When to reevaluate your situation or employment amid return-to-office orders

A Gartner survey of 4,000 employees shows that 75 percent of executive leaders believe they have a culture of flexibility, but only 57 percent of employees agree. “Flexibility” looks different for all of us. Someone may be willing to return to the office, but only want to work between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. Someone else may want to spend the majority of their workdays at home, but be willing to go in two consecutive days per week. To be truly flexible, employers should give an array of options to their employees and create best practices to accommodate at-home and in-person work. Unfortunately, not all will.

As an employee, you should feel comfortable bringing your concerns to your employer. They may not have solidified the back-to-work plans yet, but they should be able to keep you informed of any updates as they occur. If you decide these plans aren’t suitable to your needs, or if you find that returning to the office is causing you more harm than good, then you’ll want to notify your employer to see if they can make accommodations or consider alternative employment. The Great Resignation is happening for a reason

Work can be stressful at times, but it shouldn't overwhelm you—or put you at risk for burnout. If your mental health is being harmed by your work situation, then you should speak with a mental health professional about the best ways to cope and focus on the priorities that are most important to you at this time. The world is changing at a rapid speed, and you get to decide how you’ll respond to those changes.

About our sources

Dr. Nicole Rankine has trained leaders both adults and youth both nationally and internationally including Costa Rica, South Africa, China, and Kenya. She also serves as an adjunct college professor and holds a bachelor’s and master’s of science degree in biology and a master’s and doctorate in public health, where she focuses on community health education.

Dr. Angela Webb is a licensed clinical psychologist in the state of Missouri and Virginia. She helps clients overcome psychological struggles by exploring their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors and helping to determine if they are meeting their desired needs. She specializes in assessing and treating individuals with severe mental illness and/or personality disorders. Through various telehealth platforms, she provides individual psychotherapy and assesses for diagnostic clarifications. More specifically, she specializes in determining eligibility for individuals to receive emotional support animal letters, provides therapy, conducts risk assessments, administers and interprets personality testing, and completes forensic assessments.

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