Returning to work is going to be a challenge for all of us. We will be interacting with one another for the first time in over 8 weeks. Undoubtedly this will cause feelings of anxiety. So what is anxiety, and how can we help reduce those feelings as we return to work?

On 1st May 2020 the results of a poll entitled ‘Attitudes to lockdown, impact and consequences – Comfort of returning to “normality”’ were released by Ipsos MORI.

It was reported that 35% of responders were ‘not comfortable’ about returning to work, while 49% felt ‘very/fairly comfortable’.  61% of responders were not comfortable about using public transport.

The poll did not go into details about why people felt uncomfortable using public transport but one possibility is that responders felt anxious about returning to work.  So, if this is the case, what can be done to manage anxiety in the post-COVID world?

To understand this, we need to know what anxiety is.

What is anxiety?

From an evolutionary point of view, It was also used as a motivator to remember how we responded in previous situations to ensure our survival.

To be anxious about COVID-19 is a natural, human response as we are not familiar with this threat to our health.

Anxiety comes in two forms:  the first is ‘state anxiety’, which describes how a person reacts to stressful situations, like a big exam or a traffic jam. The second kind is ‘trait anxiety’ which refers to a person’s general tendency to see things as stressful to begin with. Trait anxiety, in other words, is our resting level of anxiety on any given day.

If you can learn to manage your anxiety, you will benefit in all kinds of ways. Your health should improve, and, if you ever find yourself in a life or death situation, you have a better chance of being able to control your fear response. This will help to maintain your ability to make decisions and process new information.

How do you learn to manage anxiety?

It is very simple, it is all about breathing.

Breath is the only reliable bridge between the conscious mind and the subconscious. So, it makes sense to learn how to manipulate it to your advantage.

If you train yourself in rhythmic breathing in stressful situations, you will perform better.

Police officers, military personnel and athletes use their breath to relax, focus and win in stressful situations. Whether it is facing gunfire or standing at the start line of a big race, breathing calms the body and focuses the mind.

What do you need to do?

Try and be ‘body aware’.  Feel the contact between your feet and the floor.  Then move your attention to the sensations in your lower spine (and bottom, if you are sat down).  Next, focus on your shoulders, now move on to your hands and fingers.  This brings your attention into the present moment, making you feel relaxed and calm

When you are ready to end the breathing session, go back to focusing on the feeling of your body and the sensation of your feet on the floor.

See our full COVID-19 Health and Safety Advice and Guidance

How will this help me, when I return to work?

Whether you take the train or bus, or drive into work, after being away for so long we will all have some level of anxiety, this is natural.

You should already be in contact with your line manager, whether it is by phone or Skype, Zoom, Teams, or even email.  If you are feeling anxious, regardless of the level, talk to your manager about what is on your mind.  Can’t talk to your manager? Talk to somebody from your organisation, a colleague or a member of HR.

Is it getting to work?  Or seeing everybody again?

If you use public transport, as the 61% responders in the poll, you may be thinking, what can I do?  Talk to your manager about having a phased return, or moving your start time, so you are not travelling in ‘rush-hour’.

And when you are waiting for the bus or train to arrive, practise your breathing exercises, and when the bus does arrive, follow the advice:

  • Maintain physical distance
  • Try not to touch your face
  • Maintain good hygiene by washing your hands when you can, or using an alcohol-based hand sanitiser

When travelling, do your breathing exercises again.

Once you are in your workplace, wash your hands and practice your breathing exercises. And remember, everybody you will see today will be in the same boat, everyone, whether they show it or not, will be feeling anxious, probably about the same things you are.

Remember to keep your physical distance from your colleagues, but smile and say hello, engage with people. It will be a positive experience to see everyone again.

And anytime you feel anxious, just breathe, it will be okay.

Got any questions on wellbeing or anxiety when helping staff return to work? Why not send a question into our H&S experts on our COVID-19 H&S Hub?

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