Managing workplace stress isn’t always easy: 6 experts on dealing with back-to-the-office anxiety

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  • This Stress Awareness Month, and as you begin to head back to the office, read a complete guide to managing return anxiety.

    April marks Stress Awareness month, yet despite coronavirus rates being at their lowest since last year and society returning to normal, life feels a little stressful, doesn’t it?

    For many, things returning to normal – after a year cooped up inside, social distancing and self isolating – can feel daunting. We’ve covered reentry anxiety and the symptoms of burnout, and next up, we’ve spoken to the experts about workplace stress, as many businesses begin to ask workers to return to the office and their standard nine to five.

    Keep reading as six experts who reveal their top tips for not only managing workplace stress but making sure it doesn’t spill over into your personal life, either.

    Anxious about returning to the office? 6 ways to avoid workplace stress

    As you begin to return to the office for the first time in, well, years, it’s only natural to worry about how you’ll cope with yet another change in routine. Hopefully these expert tips on avoiding workplace stress and anxiety about returning will help.

    1. Understand your stress patterns

    You’ve read our guides to chronic stress, catastrophising and stress management techniques. But do you really understand what makes you tick?

    To avoid feeling mega anxious about returning to the office, first, you need to understand what exactly it is about returning to the office that’s making you stressed. Ultimately, it’s not stress that produces burnout, impaired performance, and physical breakdown, but rather the duration of stress without recovery, explains Sascha Heinemann, an expert in performance recovery and stress resilience.

    “More often than not, and especially when your stress levels are particularly high, you don’t pay much attention to signs such as physical restlessness, wandering attention, and greater irritability. Instead, we override it with coffee, sweets, and other stimulants and deplete our energy reserves with stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol,” he explains.

    Sound familiar? Top tip: taking a break every 90 minutes a day will help you mind to stay both calm and concentrated, ultimately likely lowering your anxiety levels, too.

    2. Address your feelings, don’t surpress them 

    Feeling nervous about heading back in? Not sure how you’ll cope, or just slightly dreading so much social interaction again?

    That’s normal, and the key thing to do when such feelings arise is address them. Ask yourself: on a scale of one to ten, how stressed are you about returning? And how often do you pretend everything’s fine? “When you suppress what you feel, the stress just gets worse,’ explains True Fulfillment self care coach Dani Dunckley. Instead, she recommends trying to acknowledging what you feel – and then work through it.

    She emphasises that it’s okay to feel uncomfortable emotions – you don’t need to judge yourself. However, what you do need to do is learnt to work through said emotions. Start by writing out a list of what you can and can’t control. “Let any emotions you have rise to the surface,” she advises. “Practice accepting these emotions, and yourself, just as you are—saying things like, ‘I’m angry that I didn’t get a promotion, but that’s okay. I’m allowed to feel angry.’”

    When you’ve let them move through you in their own time, again, you’ll likely feel more at peace with your uncomfortable feelings. At the very least, this exercise will help you establish yourself independently of your emotions – an important distinction.

    Workplace stress: A woman carrying coffee, a phone and lots of folders in an office

    3. Stop striving for perfection

    Think about the last year for a second. It’s been stressful, right? Right. So even if you’re excited about returning to work and looking forward to being in an office, you may have some underlying anxiety harboured from the last year.

    Again, this is normal. Many have lost friends and loved ones, and spent months without much face to face human interaction. Divorce coach Sandra Wood shares that you’ll likely be taking some ‘emotional baggage’ to work with you, which sadly makes you more susceptible to higher stress levels both in and out of work.

    If you do feel like the last year has been stressful for you personally, Wood has some advice: sure, getting back to work and to normal important, but ‘this is the time to not strive to be a grade-A student,’ she shares. “Accept that C-level work is good enough for now. It’s okay to do the bare minimum at work as you regroup and deal with your immediate needs.”

    Letting your co-workers, peers or supervisor know that you have experienced a stressful event in your personal life is a good idea, she adds. However, remember your private life is ultimately yours, so you aren’t obliged to give full details, if you don’t fancy.

    4. Reframe how you respond to crisis

    Life is going to throw unexpected and unwanted life events at us – as the last year has proven. So one way to deal with the anxiety of going back to the office and general workplace stress is to reframe how you respond to these unexpected changes.

    “You may put on your ‘game-face’ and venture out pretending everything is fine, but your inner dialogue may tell a different story” says Elizabeth Carney, professional women’s coach and author of Totally Real.

    Elizabeth suggests the following tips to reframe how you respond to a crisis and prevent overwhelm and unnecessary stress:

    • Look forwards, not backwards – “To go somewhere new, understand you will never get there if you constantly revisit where you have already been,” she shares.
    • Know exactly where you want to go – “Even if you have no clue how to get there, stay focussed on the end goal. Your energy really does flow where your attention goes,” she explains.
    • Appreciate what you do have – it will be more than you realise, Carney reckons.
    • Laugh, dance, sing! – raise your energy vibration, she advises, and you’ll distract yourself from your worries.

    Workplace stress: A woman looking stressed at her desk

    5. Try and avoid parental guilt

    One benefit of the lockdowns (or con, dependant on your experience of homeschooling..), was more time with your kids.

    Now returning to work, it can be easy to fall into the trap of experiencing parental guilt again. “The pandemic has led many mothers to spend much more quality time with their children and this has made the return to work so much harder,” explains Dr Lucy Davey, an entrepreneur and coach for working mothers.

    “The reality is, as much as we’d like to, we can’t split ourselves down the middle. As parents, we need to make sure we fuel our personal growth as well as that of our family,” explains Dr Davey. “Instead of getting consumed in guilt, consider what the ideal working arrangement would be and discuss this with both your partner and your employer.”

    “Many parents feel they lose their identity by not allowing both sides of themselves to flourish and this in itself can cause stress and conflict. Finding the right balance between work and family life means that you’ll be happier, more focused and will feel less guilty about the time you are away from the children.”

    6. Redefine productivity

    Worried about the distractions the office might pose – you know, like definitely-too-long catch ups with colleagues at the coffee machine? “The best way to be productive is to forget about productivity altogether,” explains Carmel Moore, director of the One Moment Company. “Instead, focus on how you are spending your time and designing your day. Chances are that due to the pandemic, you’ve already fallen into the remote working trap of working too hard and blurring the boundary between work and home on an endless loop of virtual meetings,” she says.

    Moore explains that when you’re working from home, it’s hard to judge your own productivity, so you default to working harder. “You manufacture stress to motivate yourself, fuel productivity. Longer hours actually make you less productive. One way to alleviate the stress is to redefine what productivity means for you, by knowing when and why you are at your best both at home and at work,” she shares.

    So, the director suggests working out exactly what factors help to make you your best version of you. Know when you work at your best – for example, if it’s early in the morning, attack your most difficult tasks then.

    Make sure your purpose and priorities are clear, and recalibrate if it’s not working for you, she advises. So there you have it – managing workplace stress never looked so easy.

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