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Mindfully returning to in-person work

As COVID-19 restrictions begin to lift in some areas, many of us are left feeling uneasy, especially when it comes to returning to work.

A recent Gartner survey revealed that 82% of company leaders will allow employees to work remotely some of the time, which means work life is going to look and feel very different than it did before. The pandemic has also increased fears of automation in many industries, leaving almost 40% of workers believing their jobs will be obsolete within five years. These changes, along with the challenges we continue to face at home, can be major sources of stress and anxiety.

Practicing mindfulness can help us navigate change and uncertainty with a bit more ease. It allows us to detach from what was, and instead accept what is. The mind prefers familiarity, certainty, and routine, so meditation makes us better equipped to adjust to whatever is shifting within and around us.

As we train our minds to be more comfortable with change, we can make the transition to post-pandemic life with less stress, fewer anxious thoughts, and more focus. Instead of needing to know how things will be, we become okay with not knowing. That’s how mindfulness helps us to become more resilient, so we can better handle whatever may come our way.

To understand the benefits of meditation and mindfulness, it can be helpful to take a closer look at why we tend to resist change, and how it creates stress and anxiety. Then, we can learn to use tools, like Headspace’s courses and exercises, to help us cope.


What makes change so scary?

We often tend to jump straight to discussing the topics of stress and day-to-day anxiety as reactions to change, rather than talking about change itself. What exactly makes change so difficult?

On a fundamental level, as humans, we are built to choose. We have a need to control. By making choices and exercising that control, we build routines and structure to create a sense of safety and stability in our lives. When things change, our sense of security can break down and we can experience a range of emotions, whether it’s an undercurrent of discomfort or actually feeling threatened, especially when change involves a radical shift, or introduces something we haven’t faced before.

Of course, what we don’t realize is that change is an inevitable part of life. If we pay attention, everything is changing all of the time, whether it’s external — businesses opening and closing, people coming and going, places evolving — or internal — our thoughts, emotions, physical sensations. But understanding that concept and embracing its reality are two different things.

It’s possibly why we often make change harder for ourselves by resisting it and staying focused on what we don’t want to happen, rather than understanding what is happening. We become too involved with the emotions around change, and that preoccupation is one way stress and anxiety can arise.


Why we might experience back-to-work anxiety

Everyone experiences stress and general anxiety, albeit in different ways and with different levels of intensity. In a nutshell, stress is primarily a physiological response to an external threat, or a perceived threat. Anxiety arises in the mind as a reaction to the stress; usually triggered by a certain fear or the way we interpret stress, and it’s often oriented in the future. So when we encounter uncertainty — such as making the transition back to work after a pandemic — it’s normal to feel anxious as we try to make sense of a shifting landscape.

Anxiety performs like a self-reinforcing cycle that kicks in due to a specific situation or event that leads to a worried or anxious thought — bringing feelings of fear, tension, or dread. Before we know it, we have bought into the entire storyline of anxiety that the mind has spun.

Typically, we then try to get rid of those feelings. Sometimes, we might even avoid the trigger point by trying to ignore it or distract ourselves. Other times, we might go the other way: seeking reassurance to try to control the situation. And while those control strategies sometimes work in the short term, we typically find that they don’t actually work to manage anxiety in the long run.

The key here is that anxiety influences our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in ways that will actually make it grow over time. And left unchecked, it can cause severe distress and impair our ability to function in daily life. One solution is to practice mindfulness to not only break the cycle of anxiety, but to transform our relationship with it.

“By bringing awareness to our current behaviors and noticing more about how various types of triggers affect our feelings of anxiety, we can make changes in the behaviors that fuel that anxiety cycle.”

Christelle Ngnoumen, Senior Behavioral Scientist at Headspace

Interrupting the cycle: how mindfulness can help

Mindfulness meditation can be a powerful tool for combating stress and helping people maintain focus once in the office, particularly as they navigate the transition back to the office from home.

What makes it so effective is the element of attention training — bringing our attention to the present moment, and training the mind to be calm and engaged with each task at hand, without being easily distracted. Meditation activates an area in our brain called the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for higher-level skills like critical thinking, decision making, planning and focus.

While meditation can enhance areas of the brain responsible for thoughtfully responding to events, it can also deactivate regions and processes responsible for impulsively reacting to events. For example, it has been shown to reduce the size of the amygdala, an area involved with the fight-or-flight center, which is also responsible for fear and stress.

Through a regular and consistent mindfulness practice, we develop the ability to turn reactivity into a considered, intentional response — and this establishes the basis of resilience. The more aware we are of how the mind behaves, the less influenced we are by its storylines and patterns. This leads to an incredibly valuable shift in mindset when it comes to navigating the kind of uncertainties the past year has presented, and the kind of changes we face in returning to the office.

There are a few practical suggestions that are recommended for anyone who’s experiencing elevated day-to-day anxiety and stress right now. They’re all about limiting the impact of anxiety triggers and catching anxious thoughts. The more we understand and recognize the qualities of the anxious mind, the better equipped we are to interrupt the anxiety cycle.


Using Headspace for an easier transition

One of the most impactful ways to deal with uncertainty is to examine how we understand and view it. Rather than seeing it as something to avoid or reject, it may be worthwhile to think about how we can better deal, and become comfortable, with change. When we learn to step into the experience of change, instead of ruminating on change, it can prove transformative. We essentially train the mind to rest in uncertainty, with a sense of calm, clarity, and awareness. Headspace offers courses, collections, exercises, and expert videos that can help.

Change and transitions

These courses and meditations can help you cope with the uncertainty that comes with change in different situations:

  • Navigating Change (course)
  • Adapting to Sudden Change (meditation)
  • Navigating Change x NBA (course)
  • Changing Perspective (expert guidance)
  • Leaving Home (course)
  • Acceptance (course)

Managing Work Stress collection

Explore the Headspace Managing Work Stress library before or during your daily commute to work. These meditations and exercises are designed to help you cope with everyday anxious feelings and find your focus:

  • Morning Pause (meditation)
  • Afternoon Refresh (meditation)
  • End of Day (meditation)
  • Work Crisis SOS (mediation)
  • Emotions at Work (expert guidance)
  • Recovering Confidence (meditation)

Focus by Headspace

Headspace Focus music is designed to increase physiological relaxation and sustained attention.* Research has uncovered evidence that suggests that music can engage the brain in a way that reduces stress, improves attention, and helps to develop a better ability to make predictions about what will happen. Try listening to these tracks for 15 minutes per day to feel the benefits:

  • Lo-Fi Focus Music
  • Piano Focus Music
  • Jazz Focus Music

*Note: internal validation results and manuscript still pending publication approval

Your Today tab

Today is a new tab in the Headspace app designed to help you build a healthy routine. Here, you’ll see recommendations for bite-size meditations and mindful activities you can try throughout the day, from your commute to midday breaks to bedtime.

How change uniquely impacts children and parents

Transitions can be especially difficult for children and parents. As stress rises due to disruptions in routines — like going back to work and school in person — the family’s ecosystem must adapt while each member is managing their own emotions, worries, and anxiety about how things will work out. Parents must balance their own concerns while being present for, and offering reassurance to, their children.

Mindfulness can help families navigate the changes in their lives with more ease and resilience.

Try these Headspace activities and meditations designed for families:

  • At home with kids (collection)
  • Patience (course)
  • Headspace Breathers on YouTube

“The activities and practices offered through Headspace give each family member tools to emotionally regulate and check in with themselves so that they can be more present and empathic toward each other”.

Samantha Snowden, M.A., Kids and Family Mindfulness Expert at Headspace

In our 2021 Employee Mental Health Trends Report, we found that — just like last year — money and finances remain the top source of stress for workers across the US and UK. Parents and caregivers often face unique challenges and stressors related to finances, as they have to support not only themselves, but also their families. Changing work set-ups will bring changing childcare set-ups, and for some, this might mean additional financial burdens.

Mindfulness and meditation can help us approach money challenges with patience, awareness, and compassion, changing the way it might impact our mental health. Our relationship with money, and particularly how we view it, all begins in the mind.

This collection of meditations and exercises can help us understand more about how our thoughts around money play out:

  • Mindful money collection

Challenges for pets and their people

Some pets may not be used to the increased alone time when their humans return to in-person work — leaving both people and their pets feeling anxious. In dogs, this could manifest itself in a number of ways, including destructive behavior. In cats, we may not see immediate, obvious changes, but their stress might show up as changes in litter box usage, over- or under-grooming, or altered feeding behavior. These pet behaviors can also cause us humans more stress during the transition back to work.

The good news is, a new survey from Headspace for Work partner Banfield Pet Hospital found that people are already reaching out to their veterinarians for advice on making the transition back to the workplace easier on their pets. Veterinary teams can provide tips and prevention measures owners can start implementing to get ahead of any problems.

In addition to partnering with your veterinarian, Banfield Pet Hospital’s Chief Medical Officer Molly McAllister (DVM, MPH) recommends these tips to help make the transition easier:

  • Avoid emotional departures or greetings
  • Ensure daily exercise continues
  • A few minutes before leaving, give your dog a favorite distraction, like long-lasting treats or a favorite toy

The ability to return to in-person work may come as a relief on some level, but it’s natural to feel anxious about adjustments to our daily routines. Practicing mindfulness and meditation can help us become more resilient as we adjust, making the changes a little easier for ourselves and our families.

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