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Returning to the workplace

Teacup and clock


Why am I feeling anxious about returning to school/college?

There are some key points to note here which might help us not feel so worried about our anxiety.

  1. Anxiety, like all emotion states is perfectly normal, and it serves a purpose which we will come onto, but for now it is worth remembering that all of us feel anxious at one time or another. Like all emotion states it will probably help you to ‘get it out’ by talking about what makes you feel anxious or writing it down, in the same way that when we feel sad having a good cry can make us feel better.
  2. Because anxiety is also a physiological state it means it operates at a sub conscious We don’t choose to be anxious, so we need to make sure we don’t think of ourselves as ‘silly’ or ‘weak’, in the same way that it would be absurd to think we were being silly when we feel cold or hot and we respond by putting a pullover on or opening a window.

Why does my body make me feel anxious?

We said earlier that anxiety serves a purpose.

The reason we experience a heightened sense of physiological arousal is due to a threat. A threat could be anything that damages our sense of wellbeing. An often used example is a threat from an encounter with a wild animal, our nervous system kicks in to help us fight, flight or freeze, as before that is a subconscious reaction.

Now, as human beings we are very sophisticated and we have something called our neuroception system (1) which constantly scans our surroundings trying to anticipate any threats. In this way we can see that sometimes we can get anxious about perceived threats as well as real ones.

I used to work in school/college 5 days a week so why am I still anxious?

Because there is a change, and change means disruption, stopping one thing where you have made yourself ‘safe’ and starting something new where at first you might not feel safe. Your neuroception system is like an invisible lighthouse constantly scanning your environment.

Some neuro scientists believe that an average adult’s nervous system sends messages to the brain fifty times every minute and that it primarily asks two questions:

  1. Am I safe?
  2. Do I matter?

Social Anxiety

The second question above is important because it gives us a clue as to why human beings are so greatly affected by something we might commonly call social anxiety. Basically, we think that what has helped Human Beings evolve to be the most highly successful species on the planet is our unique ability to form cooperative social groups, often these groups are very complex and hierarchical. If we don’t ‘matter’ to the group we don’t survive. Equally a potential change to the hierarchy or the norm will cause us to feel more anxious than normal.  Hence ‘not mattering’ or ‘not fitting in’ or ‘doing something wrong in the group’s eyes’ is a huge threat to our wellbeing and one we will encounter numerous times a day , and much more often than meeting a wild animal!

Therefore it is not surprising that as we face upheaval to the safety of working from home and the ‘unknown’ of further change by possibly coming back to the workplace we will understandably feel anxious. We might be worried about how safe the office will be or if our jobs or routines will work less well for us in the new normal. But our social anxiety might also mean we are worried about having to meet so many ‘real faces’ in one go. We might feel threatened by having to speak about our experiences during lockdown or that people might think we should have worked harder or longer while we were working from home, or, what if I have forgotten to do something connected with my job or new people mean new hierarchies.

Remember, all this works below our cognitive level. Sometimes just by ‘acknowledging’ our anxieties and therefore raising them to the cognitive bit of our brain we can already start to reduce the threat and our associated state of arousal. In effect the primeval part of our brain is saying to our cognitive brain ‘I don’t feel safe can you help me out by thinking about this differently or taking some action.’

But what can I do about anxiety?

Start by checking in with yourself.

 'What can I do about anxiety’  -

You can use the body scan tool to check in where stress, anxiety or tension sit within your body. When we start to recognise how anxiety manifests itself in our bodies we are then raising our consciousness to awakening and ask ourselves ‘what are the triggers and that are causing these tensions within my body?’.


Remember if you need support the Employee Assistance Programme is available 24/7 or you can contact our Occupational Health team.