A woman walking out the door on her way to work

How to psychologically prepare yourself to return to the office

Posted by for Mental Health

Are you feeling out of ‘office-shape’ after a year and a half working from home? You’re not the only one. Here, a psychologist shares her top tips for preparing yourself to return to your desk.

If you’ve worked from home for the last 18 months, you might be feeling a little overwhelmed at the prospect of returning to the office. There’s a lot to get used to again, from the stress of the daily commute to the simple act of choosing an outfit in the morning.

With this in mind, it’s hardly surprising that new research from the recruitment specialist Michael Page has revealed that many women across the country are feeling out of “office shape” ahead of their return to the workplace.

According to the survey of 2,000 office workers, over one in three women (34%) are not used to getting fully dressed while working from home, while one in five (20%) have made a habit of taking afternoon naps during the working day. 

And many are also fearing what will happen once they return to the office too, with 30% feeling as if their small talk and social skills have been impacted by working from home, and 19% saying they were concerned about getting office etiquette wrong when it comes to physical contact with colleagues.

While it’s completely normal to feel a little out of practice when it comes to getting back to something you haven’t done in so long, the idea of taking that first step can seem incredibly daunting. So, what can you do to psychologically prepare yourself and make that first day feel a little less overwhelming? 

To find out more about how you can get yourself back in “office-shape” ahead of your return, we asked psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos to share her top tips. Here’s what she had to say. 

Give yourself time 

If you’re feeling overwhelmed about everything you need to do to prepare yourself for your return to the office, make sure you give yourself lots of time to take things at your pace.

“We are so out of practice when it comes to the daily commute, so much so that our research found a fifth of London workers have missed their stop or got on the wrong train, when getting back to the office,” Dr Papadopoulos says. “If you are one of these people or fear you might be under-estimating the early morning alarm, it’s best to give yourself that extra time in the morning to re-adjust.

“Waking up between an hour and 30 minutes earlier will give you the chance to double check your train times, enjoy a leisurely stroll to the bus stop and even give you a buffer if you get off at the wrong station!” 

An alarm clock
Setting your alarm a little earlier than usual will give you the time you need to take things slow.

Make your desk a welcoming environment

Being in an unfamiliar space will likely feel a little jarring after so long spent at home, so why not bring a few creature comforts with you to make that experience easier?

“Taking some time to make your desk a familiar and comfortable space is important,” Dr Papadopoulos says. “If you can come in advance as part of your dry-run I’d encourage you to do so! Be it a diffuser with your favourite scent or your favourite mug, having a familiar space waiting for you on the first day back will put you at ease as soon as you sit down.” 

Do a dry run of your commute

Of course, one of the major differences between working from home and going into the office is having to do a commute. 

In order to prepare yourself for this shift, Dr Papadopoulos says, you might want to consider doing a practice run of your old routine to ensure everything goes smoothly. 

“Eighteen months of working from home has literally created new neural connections in our brain around our new habits, while those associated with the physical office have been weakened through disuse, so if you’re planning on jumping straight into your old routine on day one you may find it more challenging than it used to be!” she explains.

“By doing a dry run of your commute ahead of time, whether it’s jumping on public transport or biking your old route to work, refamiliarising yourself with your old routine will help to retrain your brain and make a big difference on your first day back.” 

Fuel your brain

Returning to the office will be both physically and emotionally taxing, so you’ll want to make sure you’re giving your body and brain the fuel they need to function well.

“They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and this definitely rings true when you’re switching up your routine,” Dr Papadopolous explains. “To ensure a smooth transition between WFH and the office, it’s important to ensure your body and brain are fueled properly.”

She continues: “If there’s anything you’ve gotten used to eating at home, try to bring that with you on day one as an additional layer of familiarity. You’ll find that your concentration and productivity levels are higher when your brain is nourished.” 

A bowl of porridge
Eating well will give your body and mind the fuel they need to function well.

Look for the positives

Even if you’re not looking forward to returning to the office, trying to focus on the bright side of things will make the experience feel a little easier.

“Our research highlighted many concerns about returning, from commuting to socialising, but there is so much to be gained from being physically in the office,” Dr Papadopoulos explains.

“Having the physical connection with other people can do wonders for our mental health and returning means rediscovering the serendipitous moments of mentorship and office friendship that we’ve been missing. Articulating these positives will help you find your personal ‘why’ for returning to the office, positively reframe your attitude and plot out your ‘how’ for doing so.” 

Make time for self-care

Fuelling your body with the right nutrition isn’t the only way to take care of yourself – making time for self-care is also a great way to give your body and mind what they need to thrive, too.

“Whenever I work with clients, the first thing I ask is how are you moving, eating, and sleeping – all things that have been impacted in a huge way over the course of the pandemic, with our research showing that 16% admitted to not moving all day when working from home,” Dr Papadopoulos says.  

“Getting the balance right with these three things helps to regulate melatonin, keeps your renal glands functioning well and ultimately enables you to better manage stress. So ditch the late nights and start working on your new bedtime routine now so that you’re refreshed and not hitting snooze on your new wakeup time on your first week back.” 

Plan your outfit

It may feel insignificant, but many people find that the way they’re dressed can have a big impact on how they feel – especially when it comes to confidence. Laying out your outfit the night before will give you plenty of time to find something which helps you feel good.

“Body image and self-confidence are closely linked, making this a key bit of self-care ahead of your return to the office,” Dr Papadopoulos explains. “If you can, find something that both feels comfortable and makes you feel good.” 

A woman looking through her wardrobe
Prepping your outfit in advance is an easy way to get organised.

Write out your to-do list in advance

Amid all the stress of returning to the office, it’s easy to feel out of control when it comes to your actual work. So, to counter this, Dr Papadopoulos recommends that you try to get ahead of yourself and make a to-do list before you head in.

“To ensure you use your time wisely, why not populate your to-do list ahead of time?” she says. 

“This will give you at least 10 minutes of your morning back, so you can grab a coffee with a colleague and catch up. Starting your morning off in an organised way will have you set up for success throughout the day.” 

Talk to your manager about any concerns you have

If you’re worried about any particular aspects of returning to the office, such as the Covid-19 regulations your employer has in place, then voicing those concerns before you start could help you to feel a little more comfortable.

“Transparency between employees and their managers on both sides will be crucial to guarantee a smooth transition back to the office, especially as we work out the future of flexible working together,” Dr Papadopoulos explains. 

“If you’re worried about distancing, for example, voicing this to your manager will enable them to look at what measures they can put in place to make you feel safe and comfortable. And if you’re also a manager yourself, make sure that you create a space where your workers can tell you how they feel as everyone navigates their personal journey back to the office.” 

Remember you’re not the only one

One of the most important things to keep in mind when you’re making your return to the office is that you aren’t the only one feeling out of your comfort zone.

“Many have been left feeling rusty when it comes to social skills over the last 18 months, leaving some people worried about speaking to colleagues in real life,” Dr Papadopoulous explains.  

“It’s easy to assume you’re the only one feeling this way, but this isn’t the reality. You’d be surprised to know how many of your colleagues feel the same way and reminding yourself that you’re not alone will really help boost your confidence when returning to the office.”

She continues: “I’d encourage you to reach out to a trusted colleague and have a chat about how you are feeling because, chances are, they will be experiencing similar thoughts and fears too.” 

If adapting to the new world of work is taking its toll on your mental health, you’re not alone. From the isolation of being separated from colleagues while working from home and the stress of relying on technology to struggles with concentration, confidence and setting boundaries, there are a number of reasons why you might find this time particularly challenging.

So, what can we do about it? We’ve got a plan.

Stylist’s Work It Out campaign, supported by Mind, aims to give you the tools and resources you need to take care of your mental health at work. From completing your Work 5 A Day to dealing with issues including anxiety, loneliness and stress, we’ll be exploring all aspects of work-related wellbeing, whether you’re working from home, adopting a hybrid arrangement or planning on going back to the office full-time.

For more information, including how to complete your Work 5 A Day, you can check out our guide to getting started.

Sign up for the latest news and must-read features from Stylist, so you don't miss out on the conversation.

By entering my email I agree to Stylist’s Privacy Policy

Images: Getty

Share this article

Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.