Re-Entry Trauma: Why the Prospect of Returning to the Office Is Stressing So Many of Us Out

The very idea of not wanting to return to 'normal' would have been unthinkable a year ago. But today many have been rewired into a 'new normal.'

Vaccinations are on the rise across the country and if you haven't gotten your marching orders to return to the office yet... you will soon. And with those orders comes a whole new set of anxieties for many. They may run the gamut from "What do I do with my child who is still in remote school?" to "What about the 10 pounds (or more) I packed on since I was last around my co-workers?" to "Do I even know how to be around people anymore if we're not on Zoom?"

The very idea of not wanting to return to "normal" would have been unthinkable a year ago. But today many have been rewired into a "new normal." So what happens when you're suddenly called upon to snap back to reality... the one where you have to shed the sweatpants for actual office attire?

A recent study of U.S. employees found that two-thirds are feeling anxious about returning to the physical workplace and fearful for their health and well-being. Nearly half of respondents (48%) say they’d like to work some days remotely and other days from the office. Many workers (41%) say they would be willing to take a job with a lower salary if their company offered a hybrid work model. Also, 47% of employees say they would likely leave their job if it didn’t offer a hybrid work model once the pandemic ends. 

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Sarah Harte, LICSW & Director at The Dorm, says trepidation over returning to the office is a normal reaction due to the fact that most of us resist change.

"I think a lot of people are in the exact same boat of feeling really anxious about change," Harte said. "I invite people to think back to a year ago and remember how anxiety-provoking it was to even make these changes that we're now used to. And now we're thinking about how weird it's going to be going back to what we used to think was normal."

It's a common experience to have anxiety about reengaging, she says. There's also a very real fear many still have about becoming infected. If you're feeling stressed out about the idea of being back in the close physical proximity of your co-workers, Harte urges patience and flexibility.

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"We all need to be able to just be patient with ourselves and each other to adjust. But we're all going to get through it," she said.

Deborah Serani, a psychologist and professor at Adelphi University in New York, said it's to be expected that some will encounter "re-entry trauma" in returning the the workplace.

"Anytime you experience a traumatic event, your return to the everyday world after healing is called re-entry," said Serani. "While some can shift from an extraordinary situation with moderate ease, there will be many who experience re-entry trauma — where the adjustment to the new-normal causes anxiety, insecurity, depression and perhaps even re-traumatization."

For those returning to work, Serani says that "creating safe and refueling spaces" in the day will help with the transition. "Because trauma is a destabilizing experience, I always suggest others arrange their workday with several short built-in breaks to destress, refuel and reconnect. And to create a workspace that is comforting and soothing."

And what if you fall into that category of worker who finds working at home has actually been beneficial to your lifestyle?

"That's actually a pretty large category. There are people who enjoy having more virtual meetings as opposed to being in the office. For some families it's really practical because there are opportunities to work without child care and things like that," says Harte. If you fall into that category, Harte suggests making time with your supervisor and point out some of the "work wins" you've logged over the past year and suggest some form of hybrid work model going forward.

"People can do this. We've all been in this historic lockdown together," says Harte. "There are lots of folks going through similar things so we can share in that connection as opposed to letting it feel like it's going to make us be different or an outsider. It's actually the thing that's going to connect us to the whole community."

Serani echoed those sentiments, adding "The goal here is to know that there’s no right or wrong way to feel about what we've all seen, heard, witnessed or experienced. While you may feel like your anxiety or despair about the pandemic is unique to you, you'll discover many also have the same shared worries and concerns."