February 22, 2024

Why people dread going back to work, and what to do about it

Eight ways to manage the emotional transition from work to non-work, then back again

It’s the end of the Christmas holiday season and many of us need to make the transition from holiday to work or school mode. We often expect this to happen easily, so we don't give ourselves enough time or space to transition from one situation to the other. Instead we tend to treat ourselves a bit like a machine that functions seamlessly and can go effortlessly from one mode of operating to another at the press of a button.

However, we are not machines, we are complex beings. We experience a myriad of feelings, emotions and mental states that are interconnected with the wider fabric of life.

When we spend time away, on our own, or with others, we enter a different mode of being. We step out of daily routine and structure, out of doing mode and into being mode. Doing this allow us to be spontaneous, go with the flow, play and have fun. It's an opportunity to allow the body, mind and heart yo relax, restore and recharge.

Take time to process your experience

Returning to the 9-5 after being away can feel very jarring if we don’t give ourselves time and space, care and kindness. Human beings need time to process experiences — to let life flow through us, to make sense of what we’ve lived, and to feel what we feel before we turn towards the next thing.

This is also true about transitioning from work to play or relaxation mode. We need to give ourselves time to arrive by slowing down and doing less.

After a rest or enjoyable experience, the transition back to normality can bring up feelings of low mood and sadness caused by the sense that something good has come to an end. It can be hard to let go of precious and enjoyable time — we may want to hold on to it and resist the change, which can feel painful.

Returning from a relaxing and spacious time away with little stimulation, to a full work schedule, life admin, the news and social media often over-stimulates the mind and leads to tension in the body, headaches and restless sleep. Pacing information intake and workload is crucial during transitions.

Transitions usually take between one and three days depending on our personality type. Some of us are more adaptable than others. Try not to compare yourself to others, instead aim to meet yourself exactly where you are and find out what you need to transition well.

Life is full of transitions, take a moment to think about the ones you experience

There are big and small transitions in our life, many happen every day. Transitioning from Sunday to Monday, night to day, from being in connection with others to being alone, from being at work to being at home, from being in nature to being in the city, from formal to informal situations.

Last summer I spent ten days with my 84-year old mother who lives in Germany. I visit her twice each year. Stepping out of my life in London and into her life is a transition for me. My mother has lived on her own for decades and has set ways of living, as do I. But when I visit her home I feel I need to adapt to her environment, make the transition into a different rhythm and order of things. And this takes time. In order to transition well, I have found that it is best not to make any plans on the first day of my visit. Instead I spend the first day with my mum, go for a walk on my own, do little, potter around and get enough sleep.

Blue and orange sunset with grasses in the forefront and the moon in the background

Eight ways to manage back to work blues and any other transition in your life

1. Begin to notice the many different transitions in your life — both the big ones and the small

2. Acknowledge your positive and negative feelings towards these transitions eg. sadness of parting and something precious ending, joyful anticipation of a holiday, season or adventure

3. Feel your resistance to transitions and change. Release into the flow of life by pausing, slowing down and breathing

4. Set realistic and manageable tasks for day one of any transition eg. when returning to work, avoid tasks that require major focus and concentration such as catching up with emails, admin tasks, diary management etc

5. Take regular and short breaks throughout the day, step outside and go for a walk

6. Practice being kind to yourself. Say to yourself: 'This is a transition day, it's ok to take it slow'

7. Break down your workload, life admin, and the things you want to do into manageable tasks to avoid becoming overwhelmed, and gain a clear sense of what you can realistically do

8. Remember that, by nature, transitions can feel a little uncomfortable because of our resistance to change, but they don’t have to feel jarring or throw us into low mood or depressive states or feelings of isolation.

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