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How to deal with back to work anxiety

How to deal with back to work anxiety

It's a scenario many of us have experienced. The holiday we've been looking forward to for months is drawing to a close and as we pack our suitcases, anxiety about heading back to work begins to set in.

Taking time off work is essential for our physical and mental health, whether it's a long weekend or a week-long trip abroad. But for many, the thought of returning to the office can lead to stress, anxiety and dread as we anticipate the heavy workload waiting for us - and the many unread emails in our inboxes.

"Holidays and extended leave can affect a person's feelings regarding work, the anticipation perhaps of a long working day, difficult commute or stressful journey," says Counselling Directory member Natasha Crowe, a counsellor and psychotherapist.

"Expectations of the workload or perhaps challenging work colleagues can all have an effect on how someone might feel about their job," she adds. "Getting back to a routine after a break can be hard to imagine and negative thoughts about ability and skills can highlight negative self-doubt and affect confidence levels."

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The effects of anxiety in the workplace

If you find your job stressful, returning can be even more difficult - particularly after a relaxing break. "If someone doesn't enjoy their work or finds that they have lost motivation, it can be hard to get a positive perspective on returning to work. Anxiety is often triggered by our negative thoughts and how we perceive an outcome or situation," Crowe explains.

"Workplace bullying or difficult working relationships can also add huge amounts of stress and may cause anxiety regarding facing colleagues when the time comes to get back to work."

The way we spend our holidays and time off can also affect our mood too, as overdoing it with alcohol can impact the way we feel.

Back to work anxiety can be a particular problem for people who already struggle with clinical anxiety too. "Individuals who struggle with generalised or social anxiety may become overwhelmed with just the thought of getting back into a routine; the energy that it takes to be fully present at work can take its toll," Crowe says.

One of the key issues is that people with anxiety tend to experience 'what if' thoughts, which can lead to worry over future scenarios that may or may not happen.

"Time off can be an escape from the day-to-day stresses which can underlie mental health problems, and once it's over many people find themselves agonising over facing these problems once more," says Nicky Lidbetter, CEO of Anxiety UK. "The effects of anxiety and stress are compounded by a high level of worry and 'catastrophising' situations." Catastrophic thinking is a serious problem for many who tend to fear the worst will come true, such as falling behind at work and losing their job.

Anxiety over going back to work can cause physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach issues and trouble sleeping, as well as behavioural changes, such as feeling irritable and isolated.

"If I'm on holiday, I always spend the last couple of days worrying about how much work I'm going to have to do when I get back," says Claire*, 31. "I get really anxious the night before and always have trouble sleeping, even if I'm really tired."

How to handle back to work anxiety

If you find yourself struggling with anxiety after a break from work, there are steps you can take to make the transition a little easier.

Speak with your boss

It can be helpful to think about the source of your worries. If your workload is the problem, it might be worth politely bringing up the issue with your employer to find a solution. If your commute is the issue, it can be a good idea to enquire about flexible working, even if it's working from home for a day or two a week, or starting and finishing at a different time to avoid the worst of rush hour.

"Try not to take on more than you can manage at work, and have a conversation with your manager or staff if you are feeling overwhelmed," Lidbetter says.


Most of us feel stressed about getting stuck into work after time off, but preparing for it can make the process less challenging. This might mean preparing lunches and dinners in advance or making sure you've finished all your tasks before going away - so you aren't coming back to a pile of work.

"Make to-do lists and try to stick to a routine, even though it may feel easier to stay in bed," Lidbetter advises.

Be realistic

However, it's important to set realistic expectations of yourself and the week ahead. It's perfectly acceptable to be kinder to yourself and do what you need to get by for the first few days back in the office, rather than take on too much. "Separate tasks into smaller time periods - small bite-sized pieces," Crowe adds.

Try mindfulness

For some people, back to work anxiety is all about projecting ahead and worrying about what may - or may not - happen. Mindfulness, being aware of your surroundings, can help you stay in the moment and improve your mental well-being.

"If you do find yourself feeling particularly anxious on the first day back at work, practising deep breathing can help to reduce these feelings," Lidbetter says. "This is done by breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth, with the focus being on your chest rising and falling for around three minutes. The key is to ensure that your 'out breath' is longer than your 'in breath'."

We know exercise is good for our mental health, as physical activity releases brain chemicals such as endorphins, which help boost our mood. Although going back to work can be exhausting, making time for a yoga video, a short gym class or even just a walk can help us cope with feelings of anxiety.

Plan fun things

Your holiday might be nearly over, but it doesn't mean you can't plan enjoyable things after you return to work. Whether it’s heading to the pub for after-work drinks with colleagues or arranging to see friends at the weekend, planning something you enjoy can help tackle the feeling of dread.

"Make time for yourself and take your breaks. Plan a catch-up or tea break with a colleague," Crowe says. "Reach out to a work colleague and talk about your worries. You may be surprised how this really helps."

Write down the positives

"Focus on the people or elements of your job that you enjoy," Crowe advises. "Write down what you enjoy doing at work - helping others, problem solving, dealing with projects or being part of a team."

It's also important to remember that work doesn't define you. "Think about other elements to your life. Hobbies, family and other interests," Crowe adds. "Look at how they impact and enrich your life."

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Seeking professional help

If you struggle with anxiety or low mood frequently, speak with your doctor about accessing professional help. They will be able to direct you towards the right treatment, whether it is talking therapies or medication. Speaking with family and friends can help too, or you could try reaching out to Anxiety UK, Mind or the Samaritans.

"When someone's anxiety is getting in the way of things they once enjoyed or were once able to do without feeling anxious, they should seek help," Lidbetter says. "Anxiety is something many people are told to just get over, that they should just 'pull themselves together'.

"But it is a recognised condition that if left untreated can lead to the person finding it difficult to cope. To manage anxiety in the long term, you may find it beneficial to speak with a GP or therapist to talk through your concerns and put in place some strategies for coping and managing your anxiety. Something like cognitive behavioural therapy can be excellent for working out solutions and learning some skills to keep on top of your mental health."

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The information on this page is peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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