How to handle FOTO (fear of the office)

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Mental Health

If returning to the office is filling you with dread and anxiety, try following these tips

Most office workers have spent the last sixteen months working from home, with little face-to-face contact with colleagues. The role of worker, manager, partner, parent, and teacher have all segued into one space, with less opportunity to interact with others. Boundaries have become blurred and private home space has become an office. Real human interaction has moved online to Zoom or Teams and the camera has always been on reducing privacy. The pictures on the dining room wall have become public property.

People have been struggling with fear and uncertainty for a long time and have been in fight, flight, or freeze mode with an invisible enemy. Anxiety has become much more prevalent in our lives.

What lies outside has become scary and alien and it is safer to stay inside, in the shrunken comfort zone. Remote working has kept the world ticking over, but Zoom and telephone are a poor substitute for raw, messy human interaction where we can touch, smell, and feel. We are social animals, and we need healthy interaction with others outside of our immediate family. Having got out of practice, this could be a scary thing to have to do.

If you’re experiencing fear about returning to the office, here are some tips to make the transition a little earlier:

1. Take small steps to ease your way back into it

Going from five days at home to five days in the office is too big a jump. Decide what will work best for you – do you want flexible working such as three days at home, two in the office, and what hours? Companies are often uncertain about the approach to take with returnees and may be flexible and want to have your views. Talk to your manager and agree on what the longer-term working plan will be and adjust your home responsibilities to suit.

You also need a short-term plan for a phased return to work. You have created a different rhythm in the last 16 months. It would be a shock to the system to jump straight back in so ease your way back gently.

2. Rebuild your office contacts

Get in touch with close colleagues and build up social interaction in advance so that you will be returning feeling part of a social group. You may have had regular online meetings, but have you had the chance to fully engage with them? Feeling connected with your colleagues before you start back will mean that you are coming back to a warm start rather than feeling the stranger on the first day in school. Maybe you could take the initiative and set up a WhatsApp group to share experiences such as the five things in lockdown that you have loved, lost, learned, longed for, and looking forward to.

Build up to the return date and make it a fun, memorable occasion.

3. Refocus yourself

This is a great opportunity to step out of your rut.

Consider whether this is an opportunity to have a complete change of work or to go for a different role in the same company. It is also an opportunity to look at what would make your current role even better. Try the following two exercises to reflect on the past and reset the future:

Draw two pictures. One representing life as it is right now and one representing your ideal future. Where does work fit into this and what do you need to have happened to get you to your ideal future?

  • What you are good at – your profession
  • What you can be paid for – your vocation
  • What you love – your passion
  • What the world needs – your mission

Draw these as four circles. The intersection of all of these us your Ikigai, where you should put your focus for a long and happy life. Does your current job fit in here or not? If not, plan for the future you would like and see the current job as a stepping-stone.

group of people working at an office

4. Get training

Make time, before you go back, to relax and look after yourself. Reflect on what have you not had time to do that you wished you had? Many people have a long ‘if only’ list. Park the excuses and make use of the time you have left before your return.

You have been through a hugely stressful period, so reward yourself with time out. Consider this an investment in feeling good and reducing stress levels so that you will be able to perform better in work. Meditation, massage, and other ways of loving yourself will help.

When you are back at work, it is also important to continue to invest in your wellbeing. A walk at lunchtime and eating healthy food rather than a rushed sandwich at your desk will make you healthier and more productive. Consider, for example, that the French with their discipline of long, relaxed lunches are 15% more productive per hour than the English.

5. Look forward to it

There are many reasons why people go to work. Clearly, money is important for many but there are many other benefits of going to work. If you can focus on these, then the return to the office will be much more compelling. The benefits include:

  • Social interaction with your colleagues
  • Those random face-to-face conversations that can brighten the day
  • Feeling part of a team
  • The energy that is created when people are working together to a shared purpose
  • A contrast from home and preventing work and home coalescing into one long day
  • Closer supervision and support
  • Opportunities to learn and develop
  • The emotional engagement with the purpose of the organisation

Think through what you can do to make the list even more compelling. For your first day back to be fun and fulfilling, what do you need to have happened?

6. Reset

You have had a lot of time away and you will have changed. This is an exciting opportunity to reset yourself and be the best version of yourself when you go back to work. Step out of your old shell and decide who would you like to be when you go back to work?

It may have been a long time since you saw your colleagues in the flesh and you will all have changed. Create your ideal persona and unleash that on the work world. You can be confident rather than timid, you can be interesting rather than dull, you can be ambitious rather than placid, fun rather than sad.

You can also dress differently, have a new hairstyle, and surprise and delight your colleagues. Imagine that you can feel a million dollars when you walk back into work. Feel your newfound confidence glowing as you start as you want to go on.


Neil Wilkie is a relationship expert, psychotherapist, author of the ‘Relationship Paradigm’ series of books, and creator of online couples therapy programme, The Relationship Paradigm®. Find out more at relationshipparadigm.com


Interested in building your confidence at work? Connect with a life coach using lifecoach-directory.org.uk

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