Returning to Work – Managing Anxiety for Workers

Wellbeing By Matthew Coombes

About this article:

When referring to anxiety during this article, I am not just talking about diagnosed mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders. Anxiety can take many forms and can have different levels of impact on the individual.

This article contains information on anxiety, it’s impact on individuals in relation to returning to work, information on how to successfully facilitate a return to work, and further considerations on the topic.


All of us experience anxiety at one time or another, but this is never one size fits all. Some people may be completely unphased by the pandemic and the changes that have come with it, some may have relished their time working from home, and some may have hated it.

It is also worth considering that while furlough may not have the same stressors as working from home, it is still a major change of routine, employment situation, and life in general. Those away from work on furlough can be just as isolated as those who are not, and being on furlough can have an added effect on a person’s financial situations both directly through reduced wages, and indirectly through inability to access certain forms of credit.

The Coronavirus pandemic has seen many organisations shift to a model of work that requires employees to work from home full or part time. One year on from the first UK lockdown, for some individuals this means that they will have been working from home for a full year.

Regardless of current work location, everyone’s passive levels of anxiety are likely to be increased or exacerbated by the pandemic. Anxiety around catching coronavirus and spreading it to people that you care about has an effect on our mental health, and people may find that they are often more on edge, cautious, stressed or generally anxious during the course of the pandemic.

With the messages and common beliefs being broadcast throughout the pandemic of “stay at home”, many of us will feel that home is a safe space, and that the outside world is not. This can be hugely impactful on the lives of those that are already anxious, or those that have mental health conditions that include anxiety related symptoms, such as generalised anxiety disorder or agoraphobia. This message has a daunting implication when it comes to asking employees to leave home and return to work.

For some, the home provides support from individuals within their household such as family, friends, partners and pets, or a quiet space to retreat away from the outside world. This provides a form of safety net that, should mental health worsen, provide respite and an opportunity to recover safely and away from other people.

As we begin to return to a way of working life that is more similar to pre-pandemic models of work, employers, managers and team leaders MUST consider the mental wellbeing of their employees to successfully facilitate a return to work.

The Return to Work itself:

When facilitating a return to work from either working from home or furlough, you should treat it as you would a return to work from stress, health conditions or any other planned return to work. The prospect of leaving home to return to the workplace, whatever that may be, may be difficult for employees, (especially those with specific anxiety disorders), so making extra considerations for an appropriate return to work is essential.

The possible impacts of returning to work will be different for every person, situation and workplace. Below are some general impacts that may be experienced by individuals:

Increased stress

Adjusting to any change will increase levels of stress, and the move from home to work is a large change, which may lead to high levels of stress.

Increased fatigue

Working from home means no commute, which for some individuals will mean that they have more time to sleep or prepare for work. (Increased fatigue creates increased risk when driving so a later start time can help reduce risk until an appropriate routine is in place)

Changes in diet

Being at home means that (in most cases) you will have access to the food that you want, this can mean that peoples may be healthier or unhealthier depending on the behaviour of the individual.

Reduction in wellbeing due to undoing positive changes

Being at home may mean increased access to physical activity. The time saved not having to commute between work and home may instead be spent exercising, which has a positive impact on the individual’s health and wellbeing.

Returning to work may see this undone completely.

Poor social interactions at work

Spending a lot of time away from people and face to face human interactions will undoubtedly have affected our communication skills negatively, and we may find it harder to articulate what we mean when we speak. This can potentially lead to miscommunication and poorer social interactions at work.

Adjusting to the lack of quiet

For many individuals, there is less excessive noise in their home than in their regular workplace. Reintroducing ringing phones, noisy equipment or co-workers talking after a period of relative quiet can lead to increased irritability and stress.

All of the factors above will have an impact on employee wellbeing which in turn will affect employee performance. The extent to which this affects performance will be dependant on the individual and how they adapt to the changes that they face.

Facilitating a positive return to work:

As previously mentioned, it is important to work on an individual level in order to come up with a plan that will work for both the employer and the employee. Those that are particularly anxious about the prospect of returning to work will likely get stressed in advance of the return date, so having a plan or ‘road map’ worked out with the employee’s involvement can help to alleviate anxiety.

Planning the return with the employee directly can help to identify what they feel comfortable doing. For example, some individuals may want to return to their previous 5 days a week full time straight away, while others may be apprehensive about spending time around their colleagues while the pandemic is still prevalent, and may prefer a staggered return to work common with flexible working arrangements.

Further to this, having a formalised and appropriate specific risk assessment for COVID-19 can help staff to understand the measures that the organisation is implementing to keep them safe at work, which may reduce anxiety related to COVID-19.

Things that improve success of return to work:

  1. Managerial support
  2. Destigmatisation (consider unhelpful views of furlough as a paid holiday, dismissal of apprehension to return to work)
  3. Clear and mutually created guidelines on how the return will proceed
  4. Adjustments to work hours, pattern, environment
  5. Support in developing self-awareness of anxiety and coping techniques
  6. Access to or knowledge of support services (Samaritans, Mind, NHS, Counselling Directory, provision of Employee Assistance Program)

Further considerations:

Reduction in social skills

The reduction in social interaction may have reduced social skills, and an inability to interact as effectively with colleagues and members of the public can make anxiety worse through actual or perceived negative social interactions.

Reduction in driving skills

For employees that drive to and from work, working from home will likely mean that their need to drive has been reduced. This reduction of driving will likely impact driving skills, which may lead to employees being out of practice and less safe while driving due to their own performance or the performance of those around them.

Anxiety leading to feeling overwhelmed

Simple things can be difficult for anxious individuals, including in their home life. With the passive increase in anxiety resulting from the pandemic, anxious persons can become overwhelmed if they have multiple things on one day, even if they are tasks that many people would not be phased by. i.e. shopping, going to work, looking after a dependant, meeting a deadline.

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