DR MAX PEMBERTON: Why DO so many fear the return to work?


So this is it, restrictions are being lifted and life can start to get back to normal. Something to celebrate, no?

Well not everyone has been looking forward to today. Sixteen months of working from home has been comfortable for some and now they don’t really want to return to the daily commute. Others have actually become fearful of returning to the office.

This isn’t only about the slower pace of WFH, the way you can eat cereal in your joggers while watching This Morning and replying to emails. This is about being genuinely anxious and scared.

Psychologists have already started noticing this and dubbed it FORO — Fear Of Returning to the Office.

Dr Max Pemberton shared his advice for overcoming the fear of returning to work after 16 months of working from home (file image) 

According to one survey last week, it has prompted a spike in workers requesting sick notes, citing stress, depression and anxiety as reasons why they have to continue working remotely.

The mental health charity Mind has said remote working, combined with nerves over restrictions easing, could be contributing to the rise in sick notes. I even heard that one investment bank is employing dedicated counsellors to help staff return to life in the City.

This fear of returning to the office is something I have noticed in my patients, too. Several have already asked me to write letters exempting them from the office.

While ostensibly this is over fear of the virus, I actually think it is more than that.

I have been surprised by quite how many people are genuinely scared of the office — particularly young people, who are incredibly unlikely to become seriously unwell with the virus, even if they do catch it.

Reminding them of this doesn’t seem to reassure them. I think that’s because their fear is less about the virus and more about social anxiety. It has shown me how many people struggle with stress, particularly in social settings.

While we are social animals, it does come at a cost. Human interactions are complex and tiring, and the shifting politics of office life can be exhausting if you are naturally introverted.

Enforced isolation for the past year and a half has left many people fearful of even talking to others again, let alone engaging in the complex social skills required for office life.

Some were always slightly anxious in social settings, and now feel they have got out of the habit and are dreading going back. Yet hiding away isn’t the answer.

So what should you do if you have FORO? If you are suffering from depression, then do talk to your GP. But if it’s just nerves, accept that it is normal to be worried, then ask yourself what specifically you are worried about.

Dr Max (pictured) suggests easing yourself back into work slowly, if you feel your fear of returning is social anxiety

Dr Max (pictured) suggests easing yourself back into work slowly, if you feel your fear of returning is social anxiety 

How much is fear of the virus and how much is social anxiety?

If it’s the virus, remind yourself that the chances of you becoming seriously ill are very small; that there are things you can do to minimise the risk of infection. Ensure you have had both vaccine jabs, keep your distance from co-workers and try to keep your office well-ventilated.

If you feel it’s social anxiety, remind yourself that while working from an office feels different, it is only returning to something you used to do — it feels new, but it’s not.

Accept a graded return if you can, to ease yourself back slowly, and on your first day, arrange to meet one person for a coffee. There will be lots of chat about the pandemic, so think of other things to talk about.

It will take a while to get used to, so prepare yourself for being more tired when you get home. Avoid making too many plans for the evening in the first couple of weeks, so you can get plenty of rest and recuperate.

Be mindful that some people love a bit of drama. Actively avoid those colleagues who love to complain or engage in fearmongering. It’s not helpful and will ratchet up your stress levels.

The Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare has said women should always be offered pain relief when having a coil fitted, after TV’s Naga Munchetty called it ‘one of the most traumatic physical experiences I have had’. Of course they should! The reluctance to use painkillers smacks of misogyny to me. 

Remember to smile and be positive. This kind of attitude is catching and others will appreciate you taking the lead in seeing the bright side of things, and join in.

I think some of the anxiety underpinning FORO is uncertainty of what it will be like back at work, especially if you have been working 100 per cent from home. If this is the case, talk to your boss about what the first day will look like, or speak to colleagues about what it has been like in the office.

Remember that change always triggers emotional discomfort. There is no way of knowing for sure what working life will be like in the coming months. The only thing we can be certain about is that it will be different and potentially a bit strange.

Focus not on unknowns but on what you want now you are back. We can’t control everything but we can control how we approach difficulties.

Remember, too, that the human mind is very adaptable. I bet if I went back two years and told those now so apprehensive about returning to work, of the changes they would have to make to their lives because of the pandemic, they would have been horrified. Yet they managed.

The ‘new’ normal of the pandemic took a relatively short time to get used to.

Putting on a mask to enter a shop is now second nature. Washing our hands and keeping our distance happens automatically. So it will be the same with the office — it will feel strange and unsettling at first, but before you know it, you’ll be back in the swing of things.

Bravo Bill for taking the blame

Dr Max said too often people are happy to accept the lie that both parties must hold some responsibility when a relationship breaks down. Pictured: Bill and Melinda Gates

Dr Max said too often people are happy to accept the lie that both parties must hold some responsibility when a relationship breaks down. Pictured: Bill and Melinda Gates

Bill Gates has said he is to blame for the breakdown of his 27-year relationship with Melinda Gates — and in doing so has shot up in my estimation.

Too often, people are happy to accept the lie that both parties must hold some responsibility when a relationship breaks down. I have never believed this, although many couples counsellors do. They say that when a relationship breaks down, it is because of a failure of each person to meet the emotional needs of the other.

Even in the case of an affair, they argue that shifts in the relationship led to one of them straying.

What rubbish! True, sometimes one person doesn’t fulfil the other’s emotional needs, or things just don’t work out. But I think that sometimes, one partner gives up. They have an affair, lose interest, start being unbearable to live with. They start the rot and don’t change. I wish more people would be like Bill: admit that they made a mistake and it’s their fault things fell apart.

  • A study published last week estimated that alcohol caused 740,000 cancer cases globally last year. There is good evidence that it can cause a number of cancers, including those of the breast, liver, colon, rectum, oropharynx, larynx and oesophagus. Researchers argued that even a small amount increases the risk.

So, should we give up our daily glass of wine? It’s true we don’t appreciate the damage alcohol can do, but we must be realistic: a glass a day isn’t the riskiest thing we do. The real issue is the middleclass, middle-aged drinkers who don’t realise they have a problem, often high-functioning alcoholics who seem able to juggle a career and parenthood but down a bottle or two of wine each night. It’s this group we should be focusing on.

Dr Max recommends turmeric because of its anti-inflammatory properties

Dr Max recommends turmeric because of its anti-inflammatory properties 

Dr Max prescribes…

Turmeric honey

I am a big fan of turmeric. It has anti-inflammatory properties, so helps joint pain. I read recently that it can be a useful tool against depression, too, even against major depressive disorder, as it boosts a brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) linked to mood. I’ve begun eating this Greek honey with turmeric, by Symbeeosis (symbeeosis.com) — it’s delicious on toast. 

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