Take Control of Your Back to Work Fears

Tackle back to office anxiety

This month’s blog is focused on the return to the office working environment and how you might be feeling about going out and about after the long period of social distancing, working from home and generally controlled contact on public transport and in crowded places.


Good news – yesterday morning the prime minister, Boris Johnson announced that we can all start hugging again.  Hugging, a form of physical contact with others is essential to us human beings. It is normal and natural that we shake hands, hug, casually, briefly touch each other during conversation and sit within reasonably close contact.  Infact it is not only normal and natural it is essential to our wellbeing, and the sooner we get hugging the better for our mental, emotional and physical health. The thought of going out into crowded places to get to the office, take a lunch break and use public transport, for some after such a long break, might be overwhelming, causing anxiety attacks and even agoraphobia. 


What is Agoraphobia? 



According to NHS England “Agoraphobia is a fear of being in situations where escape might be difficult or that help wouldn't be available if things go wrong. Many people assume agoraphobia is simply a fear of open spaces, but it's actually a more complex condition. Someone with agoraphobia may be scared of travelling on public transport.”  


Very often symptoms of agoraphobia are:

  • Fear or anxiety almost always results from exposure to the situation 

  • The fear or anxiety is out of proportion to the actual danger of the situation 

  • Often with agoraphobia you avoid the situation, you need someone to go with you, or you endure the situation but become extremely distressed 

  • These feelings of significant distress or problems with social situations, work or other areas in your life result because of the fear, anxiety or avoidance 

  • This phobia and avoidance can last up to six months or even longer. 


Typical triggers of agoraphobia according to the Mayo Clinic include: 

  • Leaving home alone 

  • Crowds or waiting in line 

  • Enclosed spaces, such as movie theatres, elevators or small stores 

  • Open spaces, such as parking lots, bridges or malls 

  • Using public transportation, such as a bus, plane or train 


Do you or any of your employees resonate with this definition and are feeling insecure, nervous and perhaps even anxious at having to travel on public transport and go back into the office environment, or are you welcoming this development with open arms? 

Agoraphobia is classed as a mental disorder as it can have the same debilitating effects as other mental disorders such as general anxiety disorder, depression and panic disorder. 


What can organisations do to help employees with agoraphobia, feelings of anxiety or agoraphobic tendencies? 



Below are 5 things that can help leaders in organisations to identify and address employees that are suffering agoraphobic tendencies; 


  1. Be understanding and empathise. The person you are talking to might appear quite rational, calm and balanced, until such time as they are faced with having to leave the house, use public transport or even enter the office that was so familiar up until March 2020, which makes the conversation seem unreal and perhaps even a “try on” to return to or remain home-working. Show empathy, give time willingly and avoid judgement.   


  1. Notice changes in behaviour.  Be attentive in conversations with employees and notice any change in behaviour, however slight.  Create an opportunity to open up the conversation around how they might be feeling about coming back to work in the office. If already back in the office, how they might feel about work back in the office and how they have adapted and changed their personal circumstances to accommodate this change. 


  1. Listen without commentary.  When an employee begins to tell you about how they are feeling and the challenges they might be having around the new regime it might include issues in connection with childcare, the difficulties that might be caused by working part time at home and the rest of the time in the office.  Perhaps there are some family issues going on in the background that is distracting attention and performance.  Listening without trying to find the solution can be the most powerful gift that you give anyone.  Very often just being listened to is enough to feel secure, and to find the way forward by themselves.  The job of a leader is not to “fix” others, it is to help others fix themselves through listening. 


  1. Keep in touch.  Once an employee has found their own solutions which they are comfortable with, check in now and again to see how they are getting on and what has changed in how they feel. Has the anxiety or agoraphobic attacks become less, more or gone away completely? If increasing, advise them to visit their doctor and encourage them to add practices such as meditation, deep breathing and mindfulness to their daily regime.  


  1. Do not assume that the most confident of your employees are not struggling.  As leaders we often leave those that are the most confident and competent to “get on with the job,” to give time to those who need guidance, input and training. Why? They know what they are doing and therefore why get in the way or interfere?  Agoraphobia and agoraphobic tendencies are not reserved for the less confident, it can affect anyone at any time. 


The essence of what is in this blog is to avoid underestimating the impact that not only Covid has had on the physical body, but on mental health as well.  Living in an environment of fear for the last year has taken its toll on many of us and the true impact of isolation, social distancing and other lockdown regulations, may only be starting to show now. 


Worried about agoraphobia or other mental health issues in your office? Try Green Key’s Wellbeing in the Workplace E-learning course to help your team’s productivity! 


    Add new comment

    You must have Javascript enabled to use this form.