It’s normal to feel anxious when returning to work.

I received a call out of the blue late one Thursday evening, asking if I’d be interested in sharing my expert opinion on BBC Radio on the theme of returning to work.

Whether you’ve been off work for maternity or paternity leave, an adventurous career break, post-redundancy, or study leave, it’s normal to feel anxious as you get closer to the day you return back to work.

We’ve all felt that quiet feeling of dread that creeps up on us. Usually it hits on Sunday afternoon, makes you feel anxious for no apparent reason. It’s a common phenomenon that I call the Sunday Blues.


It can be liberating to change direction

Having been a Career Coach I’ve worked with lots of people who have changed direction, returning to work can often be an uncomfortable time in our lives.

Personally, I’ve experienced several career changes. I left my career in Clinical Psychology to retrain as a Business Psychologist. I was made redundant, along with my whole team, from a consultancy role one week before Christmas in 2007.

I’ve been an Independent Consultant since I resigned from a senior HR leadership role in 2012. Having what you could call an entrepreneurial flare (read: several failed yet fun business ideas), I’ve also gathered character-building experiences when having to start all over again.


Live on Air in 3 minutes

It was 7:15am the next morning when the producer called me and held me on the line waiting for Chris Warburton and Sarah Brett to fire questions at me. This is an excerpt from the live radio interview on BBC Radio 5 Live Breakfast, 18 January 2019 with some additional tips that will help you cope with that anxiety.

Chris: How do you go back to work after a period off?  We’ve got Jess Baker, Business Psychologist on the line…

Jess: Even people who have had fun (a career break or study leave) can feel anxious before returning to work.  It might be that they feel anxious about the going into the unknown: having missed out on various project changes, not knowing about the latest new initiative. For example a client of mine felt left out while sitting in meetings, and had to be brave enough to ask “what’s going on?”.


It’s your right to ask for updates

When you know your return to work date, ask for KIT (Keep In Touch) calls with colleagues who can fill you in on changes to the role or new projects etc. It’s also a good opportunity to share your expectations with them, especially if your contract has changed to flexi-hours or part-time.

Jess: We might feel guilty for taking time out, even if we’ve been off for parental leave, or mental health reasons. This can be an additional pressure on your while you’re away from the office  – knowing that your colleagues are having to do more work in your absence.


Thank your colleagues (even if they made changes you don’t agree with)

When you do get back, make a point of thanking your colleagues for covering for you. Try to be open-minded about any adjustments they’ve made to the role or processes while you’ve been away (easy to say huh!?).

I’d also suggest that you pay particular attention to your reaction to any changes that have happened in your absence. We easily default to feeling defensive, but instead you could be curious, ask them questions about how these changes have improved efficiency etc.


“I think it’s really important to be emotionally honest about how uncomfortable it is going to be.”


Going back to work can be a really good opportunity to start new and better working practices, like actually taking a lunch break instead of sitting at your desk like you did before you went off.  It’s useful to now about Lewin’s Change Model of “unfreeze – change – refreeze”.

When you find yourself returning to a job or starting a new one, the “unfreezing” stage allows you to undo unhealthy habits and set new ones before the situation “refreezes”.

Change is never easy. I think it’s really important to be emotionally honest about how uncomfortable it is going to be.

Chris: If you’ve been made redundant it can bring a whole new set of challenges, how could that affect you going back to work, Jess?

Jess: Yes it can. I’ve been made redundant; you can be made redundant at any age, and you have to ask yourself “Am I useless or useful?”. You will feel anxious about the unknown, but you can choose how you see it, Chris.

I’m a psychologist so I talk about mindset. You can talk about the struggle or you can say to yourself ‘it’s an opportunity for me to learn something new; to transfer all the skills I’ve learned from my previous experience’.

Instead of being overly worried or feeling like the victim, you can prepare yourself for your new situation and recognise that you’ll be challenged in a different way. So I think there’s an element of mindset here, of deciding how you want to approach your new post.


What’s your experience?

Have you ever had a career break or been made redundant? How did you manage your anxiety at this challenging time? Let me know below, by talking about our experiences we help normalise it for others.