When Ms P. Lim, 32, returned to the office last week after working from home for about a year, she found it hard to adjust.
It was difficult to start conversations with her colleagues and she preferred going for lunch alone, which was not the case before.
The marketing and sales executive, who now has to work three days a week in office, had become comfortable with weekly meetings via video conferencing and was not looking forward to “unnecessary small talk”.
(Read also “I Don’t Want To Stop WFH, But Others Do. Here’s Why“)
Ms Lim, who would give only her initials, says: “It feels like I have to rewire my brain into understanding this new normal all over again. I felt tense and uncomfortable in getting used to a different setting, with my bosses and colleagues around me, compared with when I was working alone at home.”
Like Ms Lim, some people are feeling anxious or stressed as they start going back to work regularly in the office.
It was announced on March 24 that up to 75 per cent of employees may return to the workplace at any one time from April 5, up from 50 per cent. However, an online poll by The Sunday Times published on March 28 found that three in four of nearly 2,600 respondents did not wish to return to the office.
The reopening of workplaces could cause re-entry anxiety, says Mr Chad Yip, a clinical psychologist for Noah and Zoey, which are digital health platforms for men and women.
Re-entry anxiety occurs when people experience higher levels of anxiety and stress in response to the fear of changes. In this case, people worry about what will happen when they step out of their homes more often, return to the workplace and socialise.
Mr Yip has seen a 20 per cent increase in patients with such anxiety since last month.
Dr Felicia Neo, director and clinical psychologist at Neo Cooper Psychology Clinic, says: “As more and more employees are asked to return to the workplace with increasing hours, many may view this as a break in the structure, regimen and normality that they have learnt to create in the environments they have set up for themselves over the past year.”
Apart from disrupting the routine that people have grown used to working from home, Dr Neo notes that many could feel anxious and confused returning to the workplace with new Covid-19 rules and restrictions to adhere to.
Besides anxiety, she says the return to office can also cause an adjustment disorder, in which one feels more emotionally distressed than normal in response to an unexpected or a stressful event.
“This is because people may feel pressured to readjust back to the old norm, after having been accustomed to working from home for a year or more,” she adds.
Symptoms of an adjustment disorder include lack of participation in meetings; social withdrawal and isolation in workplace gatherings; absenteeism from work; feelings of fear and helplessness; and appearing more anxious, temperamental and angry.
It may take up to three months for symptoms to develop after a person is exposed to a stressful situation, says Mr Yip.
These symptoms are likely to affect productivity, as a person might have problems managing and focusing on tasks even though he is present in the office.
“People will tend to be more disengaged from work and encounter difficulties interacting with colleagues or meeting deadlines,” he adds.
Dr Annabelle Chow, principal clinical psychologist at Annabelle Psychology, says such behaviour may cause people to doubt their capabilities and have reduced confidence in their skills.
This was the case for Mr Seck, a marketing coordinator, who last week started going back to work in the office twice a week.
The 29-year-old, who declines to share his full name, says he did not feel as confident as he used to when he had to present at meetings. He also felt less productive and found it tough to focus on work, “possibly due to the change in environment”.
“I think it may improve with time, but at the start, it can be a bit overwhelming to adjust to this hybrid work arrangement,” he adds.
To take better care of one’s mental health, Dr Chow suggests that people take some time during the day to pen down overwhelming thoughts. “By doing so, you allow yourself to prioritise your worries and be aware of what can be controlled,” she says.
Mr Yip adds that bosses should check in with employees to understand how they are coping, as it encourages open conversations and allows for warning signs of emotional distress to be identified.
Dr Neo urges people to recognise their feelings and seek help if needed.
“Consider this perspective: If you were to have a fever, you would not dismiss it and would take active steps to address it. Similarly, if you are experiencing anxiety and emotional distress, do not dismiss this as nothing, but take active steps to address it,” she says.