The other day, my friend and I were lamenting our struggles with the never-ending email inbox. She told me that she manages three different email addresses as part of her job, and I am always amazed at how quickly my inbox goes from zero to too many emails by mid-morning. And emails are just one aspect of work that can trigger stress. Deadlines, office drama, and a mile-long to-do list can also contribute to work stress. Some people never truly unwind from work stress before they arrive home. For others, they could relax if it weren’t for the constant connectivity after work hours and the ability for bosses to call or email at odd hours in the evening, expecting their team to answer immediately.
It’s easy for us all to carry home work-related stress at the end of the day, which can have a negative impact on our wellbeing. Through my work as a therapist, I’ve learned how important it is to leave my work stress at work where it belongs instead of bringing it home with me so that I don’t develop burnout (which can take a long time to recover from). Here are some tried and true (and therapist-approved!) ways to keep your work-related stress at bay.
Create a decompression routine
How many times have you grabbed your bag, hopped in the car, and rushed home after work, feeling like you just can’t wait to veg out on the couch? Even with the best intentions, a plan to watch just one TV show can turn into a three hour Netflix marathon, and suddenly it’s time for bed. You realize that you’re going to have to get up in just a few hours to face a new workday (which you dread) so you stay up just a little bit longer to try to get a few more minutes of relaxation in. But the next morning, you wake up exhausted from getting too little sleep. Sound familiar?
A simple way to prevent yourself from letting the weariness of the day deplete your entire evening is to check it at the door. Create a decompression routine either before you leave work or before you walk through your front door. Something like taking a walk around the block, calling a friend for a quick chat, closing out computer tabs and cleaning off your desk, are all tangible actions that signal that your workday has come to a close and your personal life begins. One of my clients told me how she imagines hanging all her work stress on the tree outside her home to symbolize the end of the workday. Whatever strategy you choose, a decompression routine will help you create a clear division between work life and home life.
Let’s face the facts: work will sneak its way into your personal life, especially on your smartphone, unless you create boundaries that prevent it from doing so. For example, even when I’m not in the office, I receive calls and emails from prospective and current clients. The notifications on my phone and email apps remind me that there is work just waiting for me and it’s tempting to log in “just for a few minutes” to try to zero out my inbox. But when I do that, it feels like my work day never ends and bleeds into what should be my personal time. To help me leave my work at work where it belongs, I’ve disabled my email and phone notifications, and I avoid checking my work email when I’m not at work. Whatever your boundaries look like, try to design them so that they help you completely disengage from work while you are at home.
Consciously engage in leisure
Scrolling through Instagram and watching Netflix aren’t true leisure activities. While they help you detach from what’s happening around you, they don’t really help you feel fulfilled. Instead, being intentional about making time for leisure activities is a more effective antidote to work stress. Leisure activities are considered to be any activity that leaves you feeling energized and alive. For example, leisure activities could include painting, drawing, gardening, cooking, exercising, writing/journaling, playing music, etc. Even if it’s only for fifteen minutes each day, leisure helps to counterbalance the effects of stress from your workday.
Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat because you remember something you forgot to do at work? And then you have trouble falling back asleep because you’re trying to not forget what it is you need to do. One way to avoid this unpleasant cycle is to give yourself a place to write down any work-related thoughts that come to you while you’re at home so that they don’t keep recycling through your brain for the rest of the evening. Keep a notebook next to you on the couch or on your nightstand so that if something occurs to you, you can just jot it down and then forget about it. That way, you can peacefully fall back asleep and then simply bring the list with you to work the next day.
Create a calm morning
Just as having a decompression ritual at the end of your workday is important for managing stress, so is having a calm morning routine. Beginning your day with habits that inspire peace helps you get off to a positive and stress-free start. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to get up earlier (unless you’re hitting snooze up until the very last second). Instead, it means identifying habits that promote feelings of wellbeing. For example, instead of immediately checking your email (I am guilty of this), take a moment to think of something you are grateful for or looking forward to that day. Or, you may want to give yourself twenty minutes to sip your coffee or tea while reading, journaling, or enjoying the outdoors. You might want to exercise for thirty minutes to get your endorphins going. By starting your day intentionally with inspiring habits, you are making the most of your morning (and non-work) time before the workday starts.
Taking steps to build a buffer between work stress and your home life not only helps you to be aware of the stress (so you can address it), it also frees you to be fully present at home. And this is the true value in implementing these stress-fighting practices: to be able to spend time with family and friends, to relax, and to completely recharge before it’s time to return to work. Work is only one part of your life; by managing (if not banishing) work stress, you'll find you have the time and attention to enjoy the many other rich and fulfilling aspects of your life.