The recent pandemic has exacerbated mental health conditions for a variety of reasons from the stress and anxiety of those working on the frontline, to depression caused by loneliness because of social isolation. The number of individuals suffering from anxiety has almost doubled, going from 13% to 24% over lockdown. For many, a new anxiety has recently arisen. Returning to work anxiety is very real and affecting many for a variety of reasons. Read on to learn how returning to work anxiety is affecting people and how to manage post covid-19 return to work anxiety.
Firstly, seek professional support if you are concerned about your mental health
Mental health conditions such as stress, anxiety and depression are prevalent in our society today. Luckily the conversation around these conditions is changing. If you suffer from a mental health issue there is a wealth of support for you to access and there is no longer a stigma for suffering with your mental health.
If your feelings of stress, anxiety or depression are ongoing and affecting your day-to-day life then don’t be afraid to seek support and ask for help. Your GP can be your first port of call, or there are many mental health helplines, or even ask a pharmacist for a word in private and they can signpost you to the support you need. If things feel overwhelming, you can also talk to a psychiatrist about your post-lockdown anxiety and how it is affecting your life.
Don’t suffer in silence. A simple conversation can be all it takes to start getting your life back on track and positively tackling any mental health issues.
This page on the NHS website can point you in the right direction to find a suitable charity helpline.
Why are people suffering with anxiety when returning to work after lockdowns?
Literally millions of people in the UK have been on furlough in recent times because of the coronavirus pandemic. Data from Statista states approximately 11.6 million jobs were furloughed as on 14th June 2021. Some people have been off work for an entire year or more.
For others they have adjusted to a new normal of working from home. They haven’t been furloughed, but have had to adapt to a working from home environment perhaps setting up an office, switching up working hours, balancing work and family life. What may have been challenging at first, a year ago, has now become their new normal and they are comfortable working like this.
Whether returning to work after furlough or after working from home, many people are feeling anxious. This work related anxiety may be filling people with a sense of dread, sleepless nights, a churning feeling inside that won’t subside, irritability and an internal panic. It can even lead to other mental health conditions such as depression.
“Work-related stress is a growing problem, particularly in the context of ‘Freedom Day’ and expectations placed on people to return to workplaces. This is exerting an emotional and economic toll on the lives of millions. A contracting economy exacerbates the situation, with increased job insecurity and fewer opportunities pushing anxiety levels higher.
Inside workplaces, many employees are facing excessive workloads and time-pressures. Politicians are already calling for new protections for home-workers whose bosses intrude on their employees’ leisure time in the evenings and at weekends.
As the world contends with unprecedented levels of pandemic-induced anxiety and, worst case scenario, mental health issues, scientific studies suggest that people can turn to a familiar and comforting activity to help manage stress and sharpen performance. Alongside other effective, non-prescription remedies such as exercise, fresh air, enjoying natural environments, chewing sugar-free gum can provide a much-needed mental boost during difficult times, whilst remaining a simple and affordable option for the general public. ” - Quote from Oral Health Foundation
Work related stress isn’t something new. In 2020, the U.K. Health and Safety Executive found that “in 2019/2020 work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 51% of all work-related ill health and 55% of all days lost due to work-related ill health”. People were already feeling anxious about work pre-pandemic and now recent events have given a new and very valid reason for people to feel anxious about their workplaces, job security and returning to socializing.
Sings that you may be suffering with an intense anxiety on returning to work include:
- an increased worry about returning to work
- feelings of dread
- disrupted sleep
Reasons for an increased level of anxiety about returning to work could include:
- worries about catching COVID-19
- concerns about mixing socially after an extended period of isolation
- possible changes in the workplace
- nervous about doing your job again
- having to commute and take public transport again
- preferring to work at home having found a new sense of comfort
How to manage returning to work anxiety post lockdown
There are many ways to self-manage your return to work anxiety. However if the anxiety is beginning to negatively impact your mental health and day-to-day life for a prolonged period then do seek professional help.
Here are some ways you can positively manage your return to work anxiety:
· Realise it’s perfectly normal to feel anxious
The last year has been unusual to say the least. It’s been unprecedented and there have been no end of changes people have had to adapt to. It’s perfectly normal to feel uncertain about the present and the future given everything we have experienced and are still experiencing. This includes feeling anxious about returning to work after so long. You might feel uncertainty about eh economy and the security of your role, or you might feel anxious about returning to an office environment, being around people again or whether you even remember how to do your job well after an extended period of furlough. These are perfectly natural things to worry about and it’s likely your colleagues will feel the same.
· Communicate with your employer
As the saying goes ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’. Once you’ve realised you are likely not alone in your thoughts and anxieties about returning to work after COVID-19, make sure you communicate with your employer. Let them know your worries, particularly if your anxiety is regarding social distancing or the risks of returning to work if you are concerned about catching COVID-19. Once you know all the safety procedures that will be in place then you can relax and begin to focus on other things instead of the same persistent worry. If you’re worried about settling back into work then your employer will understand. It may take some time for all employees to settle back into offices and previous routines and I doubt any employer will expect miracles and business as usual on the first day or week back to work.
· Talk to your colleagues
Your colleagues and friends at work may be feeling the exact same retuning to work anxiety. Arrange to meet up or call them for a catch up and share your feelings and concerns. This will make you feel less alone and can help to ease and anxieties you have.
· Try these stress and anxiety busting health hacks
There are a lot of health hacks that can contribute to a reduced feeling of anxiety and even depression. The Oral Health Foundation (dentalhealth.org) recommends the following health hacks in combatting anxiety and depression:
- The first and most obvious is physical exercise, which can have a profound effect on mood and mental well-being. Whilst Covid-19 has robbed many people of their usual outlets for exercise (the gym, team sports etc), even a robust indoor exercise routine can give individuals a vital boost to their mental well-being. “The COVID-19 pandemic not only affects physical health, but also mental health. Regular physical exercise is … able to alleviate the levels of depression and anxiety during COVID-19 pandemic” - Source
- Fresh air is another. A walk with family and friends is highly recommended by medical and mental health experts.
- Nature has restorative qualities. There is strong if limited evidence that the growing phenomenon of ‘forest-bathing’ has benefits to mental health. The simple act of escaping the city and spending time in nature can help individuals to reduce stress-levels and achieve a more positive mood.
- A less intuitive yet effective stress-busting technique is sugar-free gum. Studies have shown that regular chewing can reduce feelings of anxiety, fatigue, and depression, and improve an individual`s sense of wellbeing. A benefit of gum is that it can be chewed anywhere – and so it may be particularly helpful in mitigating the effects of work stress. Sugar-free gum can reduce anxiety even whilst performing tasks expressly designed to cause stress, according to a 2016 study by the Centre for Occupational and Health Psychology at Cardiff University. This was corroborated by a 2020 study from the same organisation. The researchers found that chewing as little as two pieces 20 minutes a day can significantly reduce the user`s reported levels of stress.
Chewing sugar-free gum can reduce feelings of anxiety, fatigue, and depression, and improve an individual`s sense of wellbeing.
· Learn positive self-talk
It can be easy to get caught up in negative thoughts and worries, ignoring the positives and focusing on a pessimistic outlook. Apparently humans have around 50,000 thoughts a day and only 10,000 of those are positive. This means 80% of our thoughts on a normal day are negative! learning positive self-talk techniques can help to feel more positive about a situation and relieve anxiety and associated depression. Even simply telling yourself ‘I can do this’ or ‘I am strong’ or ‘It will be fine, I am ready’ can help you to get through difficult times and help you to overcome your negative thoughts and anxieties.
· Learn how to effectively manage an anxious panic when it strikes
Anxiety presents itself in various forms in different people, but when you begin to feel very anxious you will likely feel heart palpitations, breathe quicker and may start to feel more anxious than before. It’s good to learn some breathing techniques to calm yourself down when anxiety strikes which can also help to prevent the anxiety manifesting into a panic attack. Taking large deep breaths and focusing on your breathing can help you regain control of your breathing, subside the heart palpitations and relax your mind. Breathe in deeply for four seconds, count in your mind as you go, hold your breath for three seconds and breathe out for six seconds. Concentrate on your breathing and counting and the anxiety should subside.
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