There's no fighting it – going back to work is hard. Whether you're in between jobs, off your feet for an extended period of time, or temporarily at home for your own safety and wellbeing, returning to a physical workspace can be seriously daunting. Sneaky nap-time and strategic walking breaks may soon be a thing of the past, but you can replace them with a well-designed first day back that’s not only productive, but emotionally supportive.
10 Steps to Conquer Your First Day Back at Work
1. Change your perspective
Something that's really important to do before you start back at work is to reframe this experience, fraught with uncertainty, as one that's more positive. Instead of being a labyrinth of endless stumbling blocks, this fresh start could be seen as an opportunity to power up after a long and much-needed recharge. In The Feeling Good Handbook, David Burns outlines the ten distorted modes of thinking. Try writing down your concerns and fears, and then questioning if they can be rationally reasoned away. An instant mood-lifter.
2. Develop a growth mindset
There is power in humility, and opportunity in vulnerability. It feels like we have to pretend that we know what we're doing to save face, but in the end, this will just cause you pain. Instead, look at your return to work as Day Zero. You will have time to reflect on your existing strengths (more on that later) and how you can use them to guide you back to a feeling of professional stability; it’s also imperative that you own the fact that you've been out of the loop for a little while! When we look at the world through a learner’s eyes, we see it through a filter that sparks curiosity, enthusiasm, and a hunger for knowledge. The direct result is that we notice the events, people, and tools that can provide that knowledge! Yes, change is hard. It requires persistence and determination to push through the discomfort. But you can’t expect change if you're not willing to accept where you are right now, so that you know exactly how to pivot.
3. Modify your goals
It's super important to blow the dust off those goals you made at the beginning of the year, to see if they’re still working for you. If they are, that’s great! If not, time to modify. Does anything need to adapted for new conditions, or have any tasks been made redundant? If you’re adopting the growth mindset from Step Two, do you need to scale back a little bit to feel more confident? Lighten the load, even if it feels scary. Set a reminder on your phone to check your progress towards your new goals at the end of each week or fortnight.
4. Catalog your strengths
A positive mindset is everything. And it doesn't have to feel like a lie! This step isn't a fake-it-til-you-make-it exercise – it’s looking at what is actually there.
After looking at your task list for the day, circle the things you’re likely to put off. Then, on a separate page, write down all your strengths. Choose one strength that will help you tackle each procrastination-worthy task. For example, later in Step Nine, maybe you struggle to make small talk but are really good at listening. The strength-based solution: at lunch, ask someone how they're going, and genuinely listen and focus on how they're holding up. They’ll appreciate the interest, and you'll have socialised on your own terms!
5. Gradually reset your morning routine
Some of you may have found that working from home meant a later wake-up call. If you always woke up at the same time, you'll have a much easier time getting to work. If not, have a look at what your morning routine has been like so far. For the first week or so, if you need to seriously overhaul your sleeping schedule, figure out the baseline amount of minutes you need to be ready for work itself, without any add-ons that can just cause overwhelm. Then, when you feel comfortable, you can start factoring in the things that help you get back to a morning that fulfills you, and start introducing them as achievable habits, gradually tweaking your sleeping time the night before to suit.
6. Treat yo’self
Your alarm goes off, you get out of bed, and start waking yourself up (Amy calls this the sleep buffer period). How could you reward yourself for hauling yourself into consciousness? Maybe spend some time doing something you enjoy – you could read a book, listen to an inspirational playlist, or indulge in a couple of cookies with your morning coffee.
To further take the edge off, consider bookending your day with something else to look forward to when you get home. If you can avoid it, try not to take work home today. Grant yourself some extended indulgence: catching up on that movie you keep putting off, reading a magazine with your favourite sheet mask on, or even having a quick nap when you get home (if that doesn't throw you off your sleep!).
7. Put effort into your appearance
Never underestimate the effect that looking good has on your emotions. Marla Cilley of FlyLady, a home organisation website, insists that you should be “getting dressed to shoes” every morning after making your bed. Obviously everyone's household routine is different. But what remains universal is that we associate our outer appearance with our inner mood. Give yourself time on the first day back to style your hair or put that winged eyeliner to work – you know that feeling you get when you paint your nails? You'll hold yourself differently and feel good about (literally) facing the world.
8. Be the power in the room
Believe it or not, you have the ability to shift the mood of any room, depending on how you enter it, and how you react to what’s happening inside it. This can be particularly helpful if you find yourself surrounded by negative coworkers. If you can't keep your distance from their woe-is-me attitude about work, consider speaking up and (professionally) offering an alternative perspective. Try the reframing technique from Step One. Suggest the benefits of returning and what you've missed about being away. Be wary of the temptation to vent – it feels good in the moment, but the lingering effects will put a dampener on your day and maybe even longer!
9. Socialise at lunch
For the more introverted, it can be hard to get back into a social mood. This is the moment of discomfort you absolutely need to fight – remember, you don't have to be the life of the party upon your return. You can ease back into it. But the key here is to try and proactively strike up a conversation with your co-workers, and maybe talk about something other than work. If this is dread-inducing, think about the benefits of socialising at work – so long as you have a clear boundary that doesn’t impinge on your work habits, you can see it as an outlet that helps reset your brain. You're not an automaton. You need a recharge. And this is going to help you get there. If the whole workplace has been out of action, remember that everyone's in the same boat. You might actually make one of your coworkers feel better.
10. Calendar-block gratitude
Stoicism touts that we need to decide what we can and can't control, and stop worrying about the latter. Accepting and being grateful for the aspects of your job you may not have even thought about before can really lighten your mood. It could be something as simple as being appreciative of the income it provides, or the opportunity you now have to socialise with other people. Think about the positive elements of your own positive contributions to the job. Try to find three things to be grateful for, and compound your efforts by doing this exercise a few times throughout the day!
Bonus! Complete a daily review
If you've implemented the above steps, hopefully you’ve been able to mitigate some of the more anxiety-inducing elements that a return to work inevitably brings. By this point you should have wrapped up all work for the day, had a relaxation session, and feel ready to reflect on the day that was.
Start by writing down the positives of the day. Spend a moment being thankful for each of them. Then, turn to the negatives. Were any out of your control? Think about your reactions to them, and if there was any way you could have shifted these responses (think distorted thinking from Step One). If a negative event was in your control, how could you approach it better next time? Try to focus on things that drained your time or energy. Are you able to cut any of these off at the source?
Now that you have a toolbox of actions you can implement again on Day Two, soon enough you'll feel like a master at work! If even this list feels overwhelming, remember that you need to take your time.
QOTD: Which of these items will you try out when the workplace calls you back?
Candy Zoccoli is a writer, editor, and English teacher passionate about the ways in which language inspires action in others. When she's not trying to win every escape room in her hometown of Melbourne, she blogs about her self-improvement journey at The Exhaustive Life.