Return to Work Anxiety: How to Manage Your Feelings

It's can be tough returning to the office after time off when you have anxiety. Here's how to deal with it.

Reviewed by Hayley Ramsey

Illustration of a sad woman sitting on the floor holding her knees

Whether you’ve had a sabbatical, maternity leave or simply had a long period of time off work, it can be challenging changing your routine and returning to a workplace setting. The thought of socializing all day can be heart-wrenching. So, to help you relieve some of your anxiety, we consulted experts to weigh in on the topic and offer some valuable advice.

What is social anxiety?

In the simplest possible terms, social anxiety is a phobia of social situations. It’s far greater than just being shy — someone with social anxiety will be overwhelmed with crippling fear before, during and after a social event.

Social anxiety about returning to the office can be quite draining. Kaitlin Soule, a therapist specializing in women’s mental health, motherhood, parenting, and anxiety describes social anxiety as “the Sunday scaries, but times 10.” Sufferers of social anxiety may feel overwhelming dread or ruminate over the same thoughts, she said, “What am I going to wear? How am I going to act? What kind of things am I going to say?” While physically, this type of anxiety can trigger an increased heart rate, sweating, flushed cheeks, feelings of panic and shortness of breath.

Why do we get social anxiety when returning to the office?

The reasons for getting social anxiety could be to a number of things: a lack of confidence and self-esteem, childhood trauma, conflict or rejection. Or it could simply be down to the fact that you’re used to a more secluded lifestyle. For example, over the last few years with the Coronavirus pandemic, we were all forced to work in solidarity and had a complete shift in our daily patterns with worldwide lockdowns. This caused a massive knock-on effect to people’s confidence and social skills. Kaitlin explains, “In the anxiety world, we say that the more you practice sitting with the uncomfortable, the better you get at it. So, after two years of not practicing, it’s jarring and feels like a big mountain people have to climb to get back to work.” 

How can we reduce this social anxiety?

Now that you know what social anxiety is, it’s time to uncover a number of ways that you can reduce or overcome these feelings.

1. Be kind to yourself

It’s perfectly normal to feel stressed when you’re going into a new environment, so be kind to yourself and your feelings! Don’t beat yourself up if you feel weak; instead, remind yourself that many people also experience the same emotions. Over the last few years, we’ve handled a lot of uncertainty, so give yourself some grace and remember that your feelings are always valid!

2. Restart in the middle of the week

Returning to a full week of work can be daunting even after a few weeks of vacation. So, one way to reduce that anxiety is to go back to work mid-week. Phill Strazzulla, Founder and CEO of SelectSoftware Reviews says, “If you can, coming back from vacation and restarting work on a Wednesday or a Thursday can prove to be a huge game-changer. This way, you get to rest and recuperate again over the weekend.”

3. Be prepared

Even after a long weekend, you can feel a bit lost about where to start and where you left off before clocking off. So, one way to overcome this confusion is to be prepared for your workday. Make a to-do list of things that you will need to catch up on before your return to work. For example, emails, meeting with X colleague, follow up on the progress of X project, etc. Just the simple process of putting pen to paper can help your mind relax and make your return to work seem far less daunting.

4. Ease off the vacation mode gradually

There are a handful of ways to ease off vacation mode and back into working mode. The first is keeping an extra day off to spend at home before your return, cleaning, sorting out anything you left behind, etc. The second is to ease in back into your work. Select your easier tasks to complete first before diving into something difficult and listen to some music to give you a bit of a boost while you’re working.

5. Refrain from taking on additional responsibilities

Rachel Gersten, co-founder of Viva advises that “saying no to taking on new clients, projects, or other responsibilities the moment you walk back into the office is important to ease the transition back into regular work-life.” She goes on to advise that by monitoring your activity and initially refusing any new tasks, you can avoid biting off more than you can chew, and it gives you a chance to get back into a working rhythm while lessening your stress.

While you might feel guilty for saying no, it’s important to allow yourself some time to get back on track instead of burdening yourself with too much work and then feeling burned out the second you’ve stepped back into your daily routine.

6. Give yourself time to organize

If you have anxiety about returning to work, get organized from the night before. Plan out your commute to work, get your clothes together, prepare your lunch and anything else you may need to make your morning on your first day back as easy as possible. Besides this physical aspect of getting organized, you can also do the same when you return to work. Organize your desk, go through your emails and declutter before you actually get stuck into your tasks.

7. Address your anxieties

Without addressing your fears head on, you won’t be able to get past them. The first rule to returning to work is to create a list of your anxieties and then start addressing them. Azmaira Maker, Ph.D., Founding Director of Aspiring Families advises to “accept them for what they are, realize they won’t just go away without effort, and seek help where required. Remember, you’re not alone, and you have your colleagues and managers as your guides and mentors.”

8. Go back part time for the first few weeks

If you’ve had a really long-time off work, consider going back to work part-time for the first few weeks. This will ease you into your tasks without burning you out. By removing some pressure to be as productive as you were before your leave, you can focus on simply getting back into a working routine. This is a good solution for someone who has taken maternity leave and is adjusting to new home settings.

9. Create small victories to alleviate anxiety

When returning to work after time off, it can be hard to focus on your successes — you may feel that you’ve missed out on a lot whilst you’ve been away. To relieve some of these anxious feelings, create to-do lists where you can tick off tasks and prove that you’re being productive. Jessica Arias, Director of People & Culture, OnPay Payroll Services advises to make a list of quick things to do when you return to work. She says, “Cross off your to-do list the first few days back; these small victories will calm your nerves and make it simpler for you to get back into the swing of things, minus the stress.”

10. Ensure you are well-rested

Having a good night’s sleep makes the world of difference to your working day. When you’re well-rested, you are naturally more alert and productive. So, if you have a long commute in the morning, consider working from home for your first few days back to work to allow you to sleep in a little longer and ease into your working routine. It’s not always easy to adjust to new sleeping patterns, so this small adjustment can help relieve some of the stress. By beginning your workweek from home or simply opting for a later start time, you’ll be able to ease yourself back into the routine, feeling rested and more ready to take on any challenges that come your way.

Working from home also removes that element of social anxiety — it’s often easier to communicate via video chat or IM, rather than in-person meetings that leave you vulnerable and open to judgement on things such as your dress sense or appearance.

11. Meet with your manager and create a plan

Simply talking to your manager about your struggles can alleviate a lot of stress and anxieties. The past two years have been a huge transition for us all, so most managers are understanding of any fears that have come from all the sudden changes. If you feel stressed about returning to the office, your manager could keep you on a hybrid work scheme where you work from home a few days a week.

Alternatively, you can also create a back to work plan with your manager. They can give you a to-do list of tasks to tick off and arrange weekly check-ins to ensure that you’re on the right track. Whatever your fears are, discuss it with them so they can support you where needed.

12. Use meditation apps

One of the best ways to stabilize your emotions is via meditation. Mindful acts like meditating and breathing exercises can help you release stress and feel calmer. If you start to feel anxious at work, breathe in for five seconds and then exhale for another five repetitively until you’ve lowered your heart rate and returned to a more regular state of breathing. When we are anxious, we tend to go into overdrive and forget to take proper inhales and exhales of breath, sending less oxygen to our brains.

13. Practice self-care

Self-care is a great way to get yourself ready for your return to work. Amanda, a licensed professional counselor from Neurofeedback & Counseling Center in Harrisburg, PA, says, “What would you do to curb normal Sunday scaries? You could go for a walk, listen to music, read a book, or maybe take a relaxing bath or shower. If you like essential oils and fragrances, try running your diffuser for a little while to help you relax.”

It’s important to practise tasks that make you feel good and relaxed. Whether it’s ordering a takeout and watching your favorite series or washing your hair and slapping on a face mask, do something that will prepare you for the day ahead.

14. Manage Your teammates’ expectations

If you’re concerned about managing your coworkers’ expectations, explain your limitations on your first day back at work. For example, you could say “Hi Sandra, happy to be back at work. I need a few days to settle back into things and clear out my inbox, so I won’t be able to work on X project until Wednesday.” By doing so, you can give yourself some breathing space to ease back into your tasks and get up to speed on things.

15. Seek professional help

If you’ve tried all the above tips and still can’t seem to shake that feeling of social anxiety, then you should consider contacting a professional for help. Matt Miller, Founder & CEO, Embroker explains that there are two signs that you may need to see a therapist or other mental health provider. He explains that if “your social anxiety is interfering with your day-to-day life”, then it's best to seek help. The second thing to look out for is if the anxiety continues: “It’s natural to be anxious for the first week or two back, but if those feelings have lasted months, it’s probably time to enlist help.” 

Your company may even have an on-site therapist to speak to, but if they don’t, contact your local GP who will be able to provide recommendations on finding the right type of advice that you need.

Final thoughts

Returning to work after a long time off can be daunting, but with a few simple tips, you can overcome any dread and look forward to your return. It’s all about changing your mindset and adapting to a new routine.


Have you suffered from social anxiety? Let us know how you overcame it by leaving a comment in the section below.


Originally posted 8 August 2020.