Don’t take work stress home

19 August, 2019

Make the most of your personal time by learning to leave your work anxieties at the office

Work stress is a fact of life.  Constant, unrelenting stress not only reduces productivity and compromises decision-making, but also undermines mental health and takes a toll on relationships.

If you’re unable to disengage from work stress, your professional problems may be spilling over into your home sphere, thus taking away one of your greatest resources for renewal.

So, this week, my message focuses on how to stop taking work stress home. 

Do any of these scenarios ring a bell?

  • You’re sitting at the dinner table with your family, but your mind is still at the office. You barely hear the kids’ stories about school because you’re too busy thinking about work.
  • As soon as you walk into the house, you and your partner get into a fight. The rest of the evening is ruined by the unpleasant atmosphere.
  • You check emails and make work calls frequently over the weekend. When you return to the office on Monday morning, you feel as if you never left.

By taking work and its related anxieties home with us, we lose the precious opportunity to rejuvenate and spend quality time with our loved ones. Constant Internet access has made disengaging from work more difficult than ever. Research shows that we now check our mobile devices approximately 46 times a day and spend nearly 5 out of 24 hours on them. According to one survey, 30 percent of users view their smartphones as a leash (self-imposed though it may be).

So, what can you do? Here are seven suggestions to help you leave work stress behind at the end of the day and recharge.

1. Wrap up intentionally

The way you close your workday can have a big impact on your mindset. For example, try to do one final little task before you leave – send an email, sign a document or arrange printouts in the meeting folder. This “small win” helps you end the day on a positive note. In addition, neaten up your work area before you leave. The act of clearing up physically helps you put work away mentally as well. Decluttering also ensures that your stress won’t be reignited first thing in the morning.

2. Create a transition ritual

To signal the end of professional time and the start of personal time, it can be immensely helpful to have a transition ritual between office and home. In their Harvard Business Review article, Don’t Take Work Stress Home with You, Jackie and John Coleman elaborate:

Sometimes your brain needs a signal to prepare you for time at home. It’s even better if this signal can help you decompress. For example, John uses his afternoon commute to unwind – taking a more scenic route home, listening to music or the news, and giving himself time to switch gears for family life. Others we’ve spoken to have mentioned hitting the gym, running, meditating, and other rituals.

3. Share your struggle (appropriately)

When you’re distracted by work at home, your partner and kids can sense that something is wrong – but they don’t know exactly what. Without an explanation, your inattention could be interpreted as a lack of care or even as a punishment for something they’ve done wrong. In 5 Ways to Leave Your Work Stress at Work, Sabina Nawaz gives the example of Firaz, a newly appointed CEO who wasn’t being able to give him family his undivided attention due to the stress of the new job:  

Firaz learned to say, “I’m learning my new role, and it’s a big step up. I’m feeling overwhelmed and you might see me taking work calls more often than I’d like to for the next three months.”

At the same time, put your anxiety in perspective. When Firaz’s daughter gave him her weekly allowance to help out, her father realised that he needed to clarify the situation. He explained that he was excited and happy about his new job – just a little nervous about learning the ropes.

4. Put away your devices

The most obvious stressor is also the hardest to avoid. Nearly every expert advises developing good smartphone/laptop habits as a way to safeguard your personal time. If you have serious anxiety about disconnecting from work, start small. Put your devices away for a couple of hours, then expand slowly to an entire morning, and finally to a whole day. This will help you see that you don’t need to be attached to work every minute.

5. Use your environment

If you find it very tough to disengage from work tasks or thoughts while at home, try using your surroundings to bring about a change. In the Harvard Business Review article, How to Forget About Work When You’re Not Working, Art Markman offers a good suggestion:

Set up a space at home that you will never use to work. It could be a room, but it might also be a corner somewhere. Put a chair there (or a mat or a pillow). Use it as a place where you will engage in nonwork activities, like reading or yoga. The more that you associate this spot with things that do not involve work, the easier it will be to use this area to get away from work thoughts. 

6. Develop a support network 

While it’s certainly healthy to share your stress with your partner or family, it’s also important not to unload all your worries onto them. Find a trusted colleague or friend who can help to support you through stressful times. This way, you don’t put too much emotional pressure on a couple of people and strain your relationships with them.

7. Focus on “will” rather than “won’t”

Focusing on what you’re not going to do (not think about work, not worry, not stress) isn’t the best strategy. In the article mentioned above, Markman explains why:

Negative goals like this…tend to fail for two reasons. First, your habit system only learns a new habit when you perform an action, not when you don’t. So you cannot create a habit to avoid an action. Second, when you set negative goals, you have to constantly be vigilant about your behavior. Otherwise, you will end up doing the thing you are trying to avoid.

Instead, Markman suggests, make a plan for what you are going to do – be it on weekday evenings, the weekend or vacation. Identify the activities you’re going to engage in instead of working – taking the kids for a playdate, joining a photography class, playing tennis with a friend or going out for lunch with family or friends.

Support your partner through stress

Even if you’re able to leave your office worries behind at the end of the day, your partner may be struggling to do so.  Try these different strategies to support each other through high-stress times. 

1. Listen

In How to Help Your Spouse Cope with Work Stress, Rebecca Knight offers some great advice from Jennifer Petriglieri, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD. When your partner starts recounting a stressful incident after getting home from work, you may have a tendency to only “half-listen” – you’re probably making dinner, watching a match or tracking your investments. However, this is likely to leave your partner even more frustrated. Petriglieri suggests giving them your full attention, without interrupting or offering advice: “It’s quite likely that your partner just needs to rant for three minutes and get something off his chest.”

2. Support, don’t compare

As you listen to your partner’s account, don’t compare their stress with yours by saying things like, “Oh, you think that’s bad? Wait till you hear what I had to put up with.” It’s not a competition. Instead, focus on being supportive and empathetic.

3. Discuss varying needs

Every person copes with stress differently. Some people do so in solitude, others like to have company; some need reflection time at home or in nature, while others prefer entertainment or sport. We also recover at different speeds. While you might be ready to chat and engage as soon as you get home, even after an awful day, your partner might need to decompress quietly for a while to recover. These differences, if not discussed and respected, can cause a lot of misunderstandings. Try to be open about what you need while also doing your best to cater to your partner’s emotional state.

4. Build a third space

For professionals with families, life can sometimes feel like an endless back-and-forth between work and domestic responsibilities. That’s why it’s important for couples to create a “third space” away from work and home – a coffee shop, a park, a book club or fitness class in the neighbourhood, a group of friends, etc. Make an intentional effort to give your partner some “me time” in their third space, and ask them to do the same for you when you need it.

Have you found any other successful ways to prevent work-related stress from affecting your home life? If yes, do share them. As always, I look forward to your thoughts.


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