Reflections from a Trip Back to Campus & Tips on How to Manage Return Anxiety

In anticipation of our upcoming return to campus, we, the members of the My Healthy Workplace Newsletter editorial team: Ross McDonald, Sara Charbonneau and Jessica Scittarelli, ventured back to campus to meet up in person for the first time since the start of the work from home mandate. three people taking a photo in front of the McGill Arts buildingAs we started putting this issue of the newsletter together, we wanted to get the pulse of the campus. So, we recharged our Opus cards, planned out our routes (one of us moved during the pandemic), made arrangements with our partners to look after kids or pets, and travelled to the office via car, metro and train. We deliberately varied our work activities during our return - walking around campus, holding a meeting in a conference room, eating a socially distanced lunch together, and also spent some time in our own offices. There were feelings of uncertainty, discomfort, excitement, and nervousness in anticipation of, and during the visit. We took away some learnings from our experiences, and definitely feel more prepared for what to expect when we return. Below, we map out our learnings to 6 tips from Dr. Keith Dobson, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Calgary On How to Manage Return Anxiety as the Lockdown Lifts.

  1. Remember that feelings about returning vary

The return to the office for some will draw emotions of excitement and relief- for others anxiety and grief as we move away from our home office spaces. These are times of change; we all handle these shifts differently. Be mindful that what feels to you like an encouraging step forward might have the opposite effect on someone else. Be kind to yourself through this process and be compassionate to others who may be having a difficult time.

Throughout our visit, we all checked in with each other to gauge comfort levels in terms of giving space, where to have lunch and when to take breaks. We also showed compassion and understanding and checked in to see what our own needs were. These are big changes, and it is normal to feel overwhelmed. Reach out to a qualified resource such as the EFAP if you are feeling a heavy burden about the transition back to the office.

  1. Plan to renegotiate social norms

We all experienced a bit of uncertainty about how to reconnect in person. One of the editors mentioned it felt nice seeing colleagues, and awkward at first too. You don’t want to startle someone in an empty office! How do you greet one another? These are questions that we each asked ourselves. You might as well. Dr. Dobson shared that our work interactions will be different than pre-pandemic times. Think in advance about how you would prefer to socialize with co-workers safely and express this to them before you meet. This will make things less awkward and will reassure you that you and your co-workers are on the same page.

Follow the guidelines for returning to work and don’t be afraid to kindly communicate your own personal comfort level with socialization.

  1. Continue following public health advice

According to Dr. Dobson, it is important to place trust in the authorities who have created parameters and guidelines for our health and safety. This will “foster greater peace of mind by validating that you’re following the best available advice”. When we arrived on campus, it was reassuring to see that McGill had our health and safety at the forefront: signage outside on campus and in our building, hand sanitization measures, a fresh mask, etc. Find out more about what McGill is doing to ensure a safe return to the office.

  1. Recognize that different settings may follow different paths

Dr. Dobson suggests that we avoid comparing our unique re-entry experience to that of others. He also emphasizes the importance of trusting that that those who are responsible for making the decisions are doing the best they can with evolving advice, regulations, etc. Like organizations across Montreal and around the world, McGill is navigating the transition to the next normal and a new hybrid model of work. Be mindful of the level of complexity involved in such a decision. Communicate your needs to your supervisor, be aware and empathetic that they too are experiencing a shift. We are all re-learning how to work, collaborate, and engage with one another at the same time!

  1. Use gradual exposure techniques

If you are feeling nervous about an aspect of the return to work, Dr. Dobson suggests slowly re-introducing yourself to situations that could provoke anxiety or that most concern you.

If you are concerned about public transit or changes to your routine, why not do a trial run off hours? During our return, we all encountered walking detours because of construction and ins and outs of buildings and signage changes. Going in advance will take the pressure off in case there are big changes to your route.

If you are concerned about the social atmosphere of your workplace, start by scheduling a friendly catch-up call with one or two co-workers, go for a walk with a colleague at lunch to ease yourself back to the social aspect of work. It is important that we pay attention to our needs and express them to each other.

We prepared some additional reflections and tips that might help:

  • Make a list of everything you need and prepare it the day before. Many of us have been out of our routine for close to 18 months, and it is easy to forget important items (ensure public transportation passes are valid, McGill ID, contact information if building access denied, wallet, laptop, headset, notebook, glasses, lunch and snacks, umbrella, sunscreen/hat, entertainment for the commute, etc.).
  • Make sure you know how your building is now accessed, and who to contact if you encounter issues.
  • Wash your hands upon entry and change into a fresh mask (which is provided if you do not have a medical grade one).
  • If possible, don’t set a meeting first thing on your first day back. Give yourself time to set up and clean your workspace. Please view this reminder of how to set up your office ergonomically.
  • Read through the Minerva Covid Disclosure form in advance of having to fill it out.
  1. Monitor your symptoms of stress and anxiety

If you start to notice a marked shift in your functioning, you may want to reach out to qualified resources such as a mental health professional or the EFAP. Going back to the office may feel like a big change, but you need not bear it alone. Four Psychologists from the University of California, Riverside, share their expertise on why we are experiencing return to work anxiety. Read more about it here.

  1. Bonus tips from the editorial team! Use mindfulness and reflect on the things that you enjoyed about the office!

Take a pause to look, smell, and listen as you go through the various moments of your “return to campus” day. Focusing your attention on your immediate senses and perceptions can help to re-direct thoughts in your mind that might be drawing you away from the present. We paid particular attention to sounds and experiences reminiscent of our pre-COVID daily routines (putting on make-up and nice clothes, ringing of bell upon train arrival, the energy of people downtown and those familiar smells). And we experienced feeling nostalgia as part of our process. We were reminded of what we really enjoyed about being in person and are looking forward to such experiences. Perhaps you could create a list of things that you look forward to when returning to campus - even if they appear small.

Things we are looking forward to:

  • Coffee at a favorite local coffee shop,
  • Getting more walking into our routine
  • Bumping into old friends/colleagues that we don’t get to see on Teams
  • Feeling re-connected to the rest of the University, the students on campus, colleagues in other departments
  • Changing colours of the mountain during the fall
  • Going for walks together and enjoying the mountain
  • Celebrating wins together
  • Sharing the energy and excitement of in-person events


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