Stressed about returning to in-person work? Experts offer tips on how to make the transition easier
Published Tuesday, June 1, 2021 12:58PM EDT
TORONTO -- As COVID-19 vaccination rates rise and lockdowns come to an end, the return to the workplace may seem daunting for those who’ve been largely working from home since the start of the pandemic.
Everyday morning routines like showering, getting dressed for work and commuting to the office can now seem foreign, but psychologists say that sticking to routines not only benefits your mental health but can be vital to properly readjusting to life after the pandemic.
“Routine gives us structure, predictability,” Dr. Saunia Ahmad, registered clinical psychologist and founder of Toronto Psychology Clinic, told CTVNews.ca in an interview. “It helps us be more focused and much more productive and most of all it actually reduces anxiety and stress. Often anxiety and stress is triggered by uncertainty and unpredictability and routine gives us that structure and predictability.”
Research shows that maintaining a routine helps reduce stress and anxiety, while increasing sleep, healthy eating habits and energy levels.
“Our minds can only do so many things at a certain time, so there are times where we’re planning what we should be doing and there are other times where we are executing what we should be doing,” says Ahmad. “When you have a routine that you’ve prepared in advance, you’re working on executing and putting your energy towards that.”
Re-establishing morning work routines after over a year of remote work can be challenging, but experts have some tips to make that transition smoother.
Keep routines simple
“People sometimes build plans but don’t think about the time it takes to execute,” Ahmad says. “Have realistic times about building routines, put the time down and the routine you want to follow, keep it simple.”
Building routines over time removes pressure and allows people to figure out what works best for them, Ahmad says.
“We talk about it as a 90 per cent rule: set a goal that you are 90 per cent sure that you can achieve and then work your way up from that,” Dr. Dayna Lee-Baggley, a registered clinical psychologist in Nova Scotia, told CTVNews.ca. “Pick things that feel doable, feel manageable, that you have enough frontal lobe battery to stick to and then add to that over time.”
Keeping routines and goals realistic and simple helps motivate people to stick to them and makes tasks and responsibilities feel less stressful, the experts say.
“Routines are meant to be autopilot for us and it doesn’t become autopilot until we practise it constantly,” says Ahmad. “The most important thing is to do something towards that goal or plan and keep it simple. If you’re finding it’s not working-- you’ve gone a month without following through on something you said-- then the problem is that your plan is too complicated and not easy to execute.”
Stick to routines that feel familiar
While the pandemic shifted the routine of many people, Ahmad says that going back to past routines and remembering what worked and didn’t work can help make the shift to in-person work feel less stressful.
“Start with what you’re already most familiar with and build it in --write it down, submit to it, maybe put it in your Google calendar,” says Ahmad. “Be very specific about your routine, like what time and what you’re going to do. Then you can execute that.”
Ahmad also suggests finding ways to incorporate aspects of current routines into past routines, such as morning exercising or meditations, to continue promoting positive habits developed during time spent working from home.
Start practising routines now
In order to ease the return to in-person work, begin practising morning routines now as a way of giving yourself time to re-learn what pre-pandemic mornings used to look like, Lee-Baggley says.
“Start doing it now,” says Lee-Baggley. “Including things like how much time is it going to take you to commute again and start incorporating those things. Lots of us don’t shower as often when we don’t have to go to the office everyday, or get dressed and those things are going to start adding time back into your day.”
Being prepared not only helps people stick to schedules but ease the stress and anxiety associated with the uncertainty of change.
Talk to your workplace about what the return will look like
“We can gain a sense of control and agency when we have more information,” says Ahmad. “It’s important to find out and reach out to your company, your workplace, if they haven’t already reached out and initiated to you, to tell you what the back-to-work expectations are at this time.”
Talking to employers about what safety plans and measures they have in place for returns to work will help ease stress and inform employees on what types of routines they can build, Ahmad says.
Connect routines with values in life
Lee-Baggley says that connecting routine with values in your life can help you stay motivated and on track.
“It is really helpful to connect the routine to some value that’s important to you, something about who you’re trying to be as a person or how you’re trying to contribute to the world or how you want to connect with people,” Lee-Baggley says.
“...Think about things that are important to you as a person, like maybe it’s about being a high performing person or a more compassionate spouse or partner or a better friend or a more engaged parent,” says Lee-Baggley. “Get some higher order value that we often find motivating. These things are going to create some discomfort and sometimes some distress, so you want to have a really good reason for doing it. Create the carrot rather than using a stick.”
Be kind to yourself
Understand that adapting to new routines and circumstances is difficult and that feelings of stress and anxiety associated with change are normal, especially given the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic, Lee-Baggley says.
“I think it’s really important for people just to acknowledge that they will feel more anxious, that discomfort or unease, if they’re feeling it, is really understandable,” says Lee-Baggley. “Managing that anxiety will probably be the biggest thing for people to have to deal with when returning to the workplace.”
Ahmad says taking steps to incorporate self-care into morning routines is essential to protecting both physical and mental health.
“COVID has been hard for everybody,” says Ahmad. “It’s taken quite a toll. In the whole population the reports of levels of anxiety and depression have gone up. Some people underestimate how much COVID has impacted them emotionally. Taking care of yourself mentally is very important.”
Ahmad’s advice is to figure out what self-care looks like for you and how you can best support your own mental health.
Exercising, eating well, practising meditation and keeping a routine all promote positive physical and mental health and will help reduce the stress and anxiety associated with change, Ahmad says.
“Often people skip out on a lot of these things because they’re rushing to go to work,” Ahmad says. “I think the pandemic has taught us that we have to slow down and take stock of things and really focus on self-care because if we don’t take care of ourselves, anxiety goes up. Because there is some much more stress and uncertainty and anxiety it is particularly important to not skip out on all of those self-care strategies in the morning.”