Life after lockdown: easing back-to-work anxiety in STEM
Louise Kitchingham, communications manager at myGP, shares advice for STEM industry professionals on how to deal with the transition back to the workplace.
Mental health is a big topic at the moment. While the majority of us were trying to maintain a healthy routine and lifestyle while stuck indoors, it begged the question: what happens after lockdown?
While some are eagerly anticipating a return to work and normality, others are genuinely distressed by it. Whether this unease and anxiety relates to concerns over the spread of coronavirus, or returning to the day-to-day stress of being in the workplace, there’s a real issue that needs addressing.
In this article we take a look at back-to-work anxiety in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) industries, where anxiety and depression has emerged as a common issue, with studies showing more than a fifth of engineers take time off due to their mental health. We share advice on how to deal with back-to-work anxiety and look at examples of how the engineering sector is dealing with the transition back to the workplace.
What is back-to-work anxiety?
Being away from your job for a period of time can affect your feelings regarding work, whether it’s the workload, commute or dealing with colleagues. Some of us have time to mull over our skills and put ourselves down over our abilities, knocking down our confidence. According to research by YouGov, two in five are anxious about returning to work and about the threat of the coronavirus to our health and wellbeing.
Back-to-work anxiety can have physical effects such as headaches, stomach issues, trouble sleeping, and behavioural changes such as feeling irritable and isolated. If your job was stressful to begin with, it’s likely that returning can be even more difficult.
Although anxiety is a normal emotion, there are many methods you can use to manage these feelings, but you should always consider seeking medical and therapeutic care if this severely interrupts your days.
Mental health in STEM jobs
The STEM industries have recently been under scrutiny after studies found the working environments in these sectors can foster anxiety and depression.
For example, a 2019 report titled 'Masculinity in engineering' noted that more than a fifth of engineers take time off due to their mental health. This year, research has found that one in three UK tech professionals says they are worried their mental health has deteriorated during the Covid-19 pandemic; prior to the outbreak it had been one in five.
It is believed that the fast-paced and competitive nature of the work in the STEM industries can stop workers from switching off, which can over time lead to a deterioration of mental health. Moreover, these industries are traditionally male and white-dominated, and notorious for a toxic masculine culture which can make people feel isolated.
So it isn’t surprising that this, combined with the notion of returning to work after a period of absence from the office or lab, can have a significant impact on STEM professionals’ mental health.
Although it’s difficult to judge how exactly social distancing measures can be implemented across the STEM industries, as it spans many different workplace setups and job roles, many workers are also nervous about the spread of the coronavirus at work.
How to deal with back-to-work anxiety
Here are some suggestions from the myGP team for anyone anxious about returning to the work place or trying to make the transition back to work easier:
Prepare for a new routine
Getting back to the routine of work life can be a daunting feeling, but feeling prepared can make it easier. Whether this is preparing your lunches for your break, or dinners in advance for when you get home late and are too tired to cook, what may seem like a minor action can help to relieve your mind and help you feel less stressed.
If you’ve been spending lockdown not getting out much, try to get into a good routine to prepare yourself for being on your feet again. Spending time outdoors, for example walking or in your garden, can help with this.
Speak with your manager and colleagues
Solidarity can be helpful in alleviating feelings of anxiety. Try speaking to your colleagues to support each other. Recognising that others feel the same can help you feel like you’re not alone.
If you feel comfortable, it could be worthwhile speaking to your manager about your concerns and throwing yourself back into work life. Employers can be helpful in introducing informal support mechanisms, and may be able to reduce some of your concerns and help you manage your return to work.
Find out what will have changed in the workplace, how many people to expect and what physical distancing measures have been put I place. You could arrange a visit prior to your first day back which might reassure you about the steps your employer is taking to keep you and your colleagues safe.
Plan your next break
Leisure activities may be limited due to Covid-19 regulations this year, but that doesn’t mean you can’t plan some relaxing activities to keep a healthy balance with work. You can still meet friends outside (observing gathering guidelines, of course), go walking or hiking in, or make travelling plans for next year.
Having something to look forward to, whether it’s a weekend with nature or a future holiday, can help tackle the looming feeling of dread when thinking of going back to work.
Reach out for support
If your anxiety is serious and you feel you can’t cope on your own, don’t hesitate to seek help.
Many organisations have mental health counselling available to their employees; if you don’t have access to such services, you can find similar resources online or ask for medical advice from your GP.
Anxiety is a real condition but it can be helped with the right treatment. Don't ignore your anxiety until it becomes too much to handle.
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