Stressed about a return to the office after working from home? Experts and returnees offer tips on minimising ‘re-entry fatigue'

Joshua Li, breathing exercises, greenery, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram

When Jenny Chan’s maternity leave ended in September, the compliance officer for a Hong Kong bank realised it had been a while since she’d had to contend with a rigid office schedule.

Her company had initiated a 100 per cent work-from-home policy in February 2020, in the early days of the pandemic. In April 2021, when the staff were asked to return to the office for half of the work week – so it was at maximum 50 per cent capacity for social distancing – she went on maternity leave.

“It was certainly challenging to return to a schedule I’d dropped for over a year, while managing a newborn and a four-year-old,” she says.

For many, confronting a world of schedules and deadlines, with the added stress of the pandemic, has been so overwhelming that experts have named this condition “re-entry fatigue”. As the world opens up after vaccinations and a dip in infections – and the emergence of the new Omicron variant – experts are seeing more people experiencing this anxiety.

Joshua Li, breathing exercises, greenery, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram

Jenny Chan Hui-man and her seven-month-old daughter, Rylee Lam, at their home in North Point, Hong Kong. Photo: May Tse

“Returning to normal life after a prolonged isolation involves learning how to socialise with a large group of people again, fitting into a regular work schedule and learning how to handle a stressful workload,” says Dr Keith Hariman, a psychiatrist in Hong Kong. “It’s just like after going on holiday. The first few days to a week (when you’re back) usually feels a bit weird.”

Returning to work even as the pandemic rages on in parts of the world makes us aware that we must learn to live with the virus – and this is a mental and physical challenge, Hariman says.

“The emergence of the Omicron variant does heighten the general level of anxiety in getting back to office and normal life, especially with many countries imposing new travel restrictions, too,” Hariman says.

Learning to accept constraints because of Covid-19 restrictions and frustrations over certain policies can be stressful, he adds.

Fatigue also comes from having to deal with change, and it affects certain groups of people more than others, says Sebastian Droesler, a psychologist in Hong Kong. It is felt more intensely by those who are shy, afraid of germs or confinement, or dealing with phobias of any kind.

Joshua Li, breathing exercises, greenery, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram

Dr Keith Hariman: “the emergence of the Omicron variant does heighten the general level of anxiety in getting back to office and normal life”.

“Such people have had months of non-exposure and have likely felt relief from anxiety, while being able to stay in their comfort zones. For them, re-entry will be more difficult, as they may have to unlearn some of their coping strategies and mindsets and face their demons again,” he says.

If you or someone you love is feeling overwhelmed by “re-entry”, there are ways to ensure a softer landing.

For Chan, two simple tweaks to her office routine were a big boost. “I found that I drank more water when I worked from home – probably because the kitchen was so much closer to my workspace. I got a two-litre water bottle for the office so that I can aim to drink that amount at work each day.”

Joshua Li, breathing exercises, greenery, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram

Chan found that using her ergonomic mouse in the office made a big difference. Photo: May Tse

Chan also noticed that the mouse at her office desk affected her posture, and created a niggling, chronic hand strain. “Bringing my ergonomic mouse into the office made a huge difference,” she says.

Olive Lee, 32, director of Biocline Healthcare Services, a health care construction services provider in Hong Kong, focused on going to bed at the same time each night, and on enhancing her fitness levels to ease the transition.

When she returned to her office in Wong Chuk Hang after nearly a year of working from home, she realised her stamina was failing. She’d been working out much less at home, even though she had bought a stationary bike. Before the pandemic, a day in the office involved a lot more walking between buildings and to meetings, but working from home was quite sedentary.

Joshua Li, breathing exercises, greenery, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram

Olive Lee increased her fitness levels and joined a yoga class after work.

“I definitely did more Netflix bingeing and was less motivated to work out,” Lee says.

To turn the situation around, Lee took up yoga after work. “I returned to a yoga studio recently and I feel so much better,” she says.

If you’re pressed for time, even 10 minutes of breathing deeply can have a calming effect, says Joshua Li. He runs Nutrition Kitchen, providing meals to homes and offices in Hong Kong. When he saw an increased demand during the pandemic, with daily orders almost doubling, he knew that for many people, paying attention to nutrition was a means of coping, too.

Joshua Li, breathing exercises, greenery, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram

Joshua Li downloaded an app called ibreathe to smooth his transition back to work.

As a business owner, Li was able to adopt a more flexible schedule than most – but when he got back to work, he downloaded an app called ibreathe.

“I now do 10 minutes of breathing exercises every morning before work,” he says. “The mindfulness has made for a smooth transition.”

Practising self-care in this way is important when it comes to keeping re-entry fatigue at bay, says Droesler. And employers can take steps to help make staff feel more at ease.

Joshua Li, breathing exercises, greenery, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram

Sebastian Droesler says not multitasking is critical to reducing back-to-work stress.

He suggests having gatherings and informal catch-up sessions before returning to the office – or after everyone has returned – to help people manage better.

“Clearly defining what’s expected of work and the typical working hours is important too, since many people would have got used to flexible schedules while working from home,” he says.

Remembering not to multitask is critical.

“Trying to juggle several tasks at the same time will lead to stress and failure. It will leave you with a high risk of not accomplishing some of the tasks you handle and then lead to disappointment and self-critical judgment,” he says. Instead, do one thing at a time, finishing it before moving on.

“Savour one task, acknowledge the end of it and the beginning of another. Think writing, editing and sending an email, and then preparing yourself for a meeting or a chat with a colleague. Fully engage in each of these activities.”

He also recommends bringing more greenery into your office space to help reduce visual distractions and allow you to stay focused. “Planning and proactively shaping your workspace is a good antidote to avoidance and helps you accept the re-entry with agency and a constructive outlook,” he says.

While some studies have shown better quality of life associated with working from home, others have not, says Dr Hariman. “The health outcomes were influenced by the availability of organisational support, support from colleagues and social connectedness.”

Instead of pushing people to re-enter the workforce, many smart managers are realising that true wellness and productivity now flow from a hybrid model that can foster work-life balance. For most people, this means that the answer is a combination of working from home sometimes, and from the office at others, says Droesler.

“Most people I work with have come to value the advantages of both,” he says.

Omicron’s emergence is “another reminder that this pandemic is not over yet and … we will continue to face measures and restrictions. This weighs on people’s mood.

“For some, it adds to feelings of hopelessness and anxiety; for others it reminds them that Hong Kong has been relatively safe so far and that other countries will probably reintroduce stronger measures.”

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