A person video chats with their family and friends on their laptop.
After spending months working remotely during the pandemic, some may find it difficult to transition back to the office environment. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Feeling anxious about going back to the office after months of working from home?

You’re not alone. A recent study by a leading software management company found that two-thirds of us are uncomfortable about returning to the workplace right now.

The chief concern? Health and safety.

The uncertainty borne out of events globally and nationally can trigger dangerous thought patterns that sometimes lead to a mindset therapists refer to as catastrophizing.

“Catastrophizing occurs when our minds jump to the worst-case scenario, such as imagining yourself or loved ones becoming severely ill,” said Allyn Richards, PhD, a psychologist with Spectrum Health.

“During periods of stress and uncertainty, our minds are more prone to focus in on potential threats and get stuck in negative thought patterns,” she said.

You have to learn to challenge negative thoughts, Dr. Richards said.

Also, try to recognize if you are overestimating the likelihood of a negative outcome.

“It is important to make sure that you look at all information about the situation before jumping to a conclusion, such as reminding yourself that there will be precautions in place when you return to work,” she said.

It can help to create a plan for coping with stressful situations or feared outcomes, so that you can feel prepared rather than stuck in a spiral of worry, she said.

If you’re struggling amid news about COVID-19 and civil unrest, it’s important to know how to wrangle your worries and rein in catastrophic thoughts.

Troubled at the possibility of getting sick? Recognize that you can take ample precautions and follow best practices to help protect yourself from germs. That’s a sound approach at all times, virus or no virus.

Frequent handwashing, mask-wearing, social distancing and vaccination remain as your best defenses.

But you also have to learn to challenge your dark thoughts, Dr. Richards said.

Remind yourself of the positives. There are obvious social benefits gained from returning to work, as opposed to the isolation of working at home.

If you find yourself getting worked up at the thought of heading back to the office, try to find specific things that will calm and comfort you. Feelings of physical warmth tend to improve feelings of social warmth, Dr. Richards said.

At home worrying the night beforehand? Take a warm bath, drink warm tea or cuddle up under a warm blanket, Dr. Richards said.

“All of those things can trigger the feelings of comfort we get from social interaction,” she said.

Above that, a healthy lifestyle is paramount.

“Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, getting exercise, eating healthy, getting out in nature,” Dr. Richards said. “Connect with the activities that you enjoy throughout the day.”

Back-to-work mindset

At work, there are practical steps you can follow to manage your social interactions and control your physical space.

Lyndsay Volpe-Bertram, PsyD, section chief of psychology at Spectrum Health, recommends preparing some questions in advance for your employer. For example:

  • How will work be different?
  • Will work sites be cleaned regularly and thoroughly?
  • How will social distancing be implemented?
  • Can I continue to work from home sometimes?

You can also rehearse your routine before going back to work, Dr. Volpe-Bertram said. Adjust your sleep schedule accordingly and practice driving to your place of employment to see if you experience any emotional struggles.

You should also think about how you’ll handle interactions and consider your boundaries within the workplace itself, Dr. Volpe-Bertram said.

If someone invades your space, how will you respond? What if you’re called into a crowded meeting?

Empower yourself with assertive statements and practice them, Dr. Volpe-Bertram said. Counter your worries with facts.

Remind yourself that you’re taking proper precautions.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends establishing a consistent daily routine whenever possible—something similar to what you followed before the pandemic.