How to tackle work stress and overcome back to work blues
With the end of our, not so sunny, British summer approaching, many of us have found the time to get away from it all in one shape or form. Holiday season offers us the opportunity to set up an out of office email alert, let go of our everyday responsibilities and relax.
A holiday gives us the freedom to slow down the pace and choose how much or little we take on. You may have caught up with friends and family, picked up an old pursuit that you had been too busy to enjoy in recent months, or caught up on some much-needed sleep. Time off work can give you the chance to get back to being you.
Return to work worries
While it is wonderful to enjoy a few blissful weeks of escapism, holidays are limited and for some, the inevitability of returning to the office can be accompanied by feelings of dread or panic. When faced with an inbox full of urgent emails, an endless list of responsibilities, deadlines and a much faster pace of life, it is easy to feel overwhelmed.
I bet those stress dreams and heart palpitations have already started, haven’t they? You may even have already convinced yourself that you are unable to pick up all that you put down and are wondering how you managed it all in the first place. Perhaps there is part of you that doesn’t want to go back at all.
If you are reading this looking for some reassurance that what you are feeling is normal, and that you have what it takes to survive your return to work, I am happy to give that to you.
The fact is, it is highly likely that, after a period of adjustment, you will quickly get back to where you were when you left the office. You managed then, so why won’t you be able to manage again?
The massive jolt of adrenaline that you will feel on Monday morning, teamed with a strong coffee will absolutely get you through the first day and the likelihood is that going back will be much easier than you thought.
But while I can reassure you that you have what it takes to pick up that mountain of stress, responsibility and pressure, I’d like to ask you this: Do you actually need to?
While we are in the midst of a highly pressured work environment, it can feel impossible to think clearly. Sometimes the thought of letting go of responsibilities is terrifying so, instead, we keep powering through, hoping to stay in control. We keep going to avoid the fear of falling apart or being crushed by the weight of everything.
A new perspective
Can I ask you to consider something?
Right now, you are in a unique position to see things from a new perspective. What if I told you that you don’t have to pick everything up again? What if I told you that you have the choice to do things differently?
We spend, on average, 30% of our lives at work. Do you really need to pick up and bear the weight of everything you put down two weeks ago, if holding it all made you feel so terrible?
Now is the time to ask yourself why you were carrying such a heavy load in the first place and today you get to decide how much of that weight you are prepared to carry alone.
The difference between responsibilities and baggage
We can categorise work pressures into four sections. The good news is that only two of them are your problem. However, the other two will become your baggage if you let them.
1. the work that you should be doing
2. the work that other people should be doing
3. the outcome that you are capable of
4. the outcome that you perceive you should be capable of
1. The work that you should be doing
These responsibilities should be written into your contract and completed within a reasonable daily time frame. If you decide to work until 9:30pm on a regular basis and you are not enjoying the process, you are doing more than you should be.
Perhaps you are being delegated to unfairly, or perhaps it is you that isn’t delegating enough. Either way, if you are regularly working beyond your contracted hours then there is a strong chance that you are carrying other people and this behaviour can quickly leave you feeling angry and resentful.
If you are genuinely overwhelmed by your own workload, asking for support is key; but before you do, check that you haven’t become tangled up in number two.
2. The work that other people should be doing
Do you regularly find yourself elbow deep in other people’s workload? It’s time to start asking yourself why.
It is easy to tell yourself it is necessary, but often this is an untruth you use to make yourself feel better. If you are carrying others when they should be carrying themselves, you may be satisfying an unconscious need to rescue others while you suffer as a consequence. This doesn’t ever end well.
Sometimes it can feel rewarding to help others, but not when it comes at your own expense. Remember that by allowing people to make the odd mistake and struggle a little, you are affording them the opportunity for growth which can so easily be taken away by a well-meaning rescuer. This type of people pleasing behaviour doesn’t help anyone and only gives other people permission to continue to over-burden you.
Perhaps that isn’t it. Maybe by taking on the work of others, you are unconsciously avoiding something else you should be doing. Us humans are very good at avoiding things we fear or dislike but, unfortunately, they always creep up on you in the end, and that can often be at 10:30pm when you are trying to wind down. Hello insomnia!
Another possibility is that you have become lost in number four, and I will come to that shortly. One thing I am sure of is, if you keep wading into this quagmire, it won’t be long before you get swallowed by it.
3. The outcome that you are capable of
In an ideal working environment, if you are fulfilling number one you should succeed at number three. No employer should expect you to do any more than that, but it might require some extra training and support, a bit of prioritising and less procrastinating.
To achieve a positive outcome, it may even take the occasional long day or extra shift from time to time, but if you are feeling out of your depth on a regular basis and you haven’t fallen foul of number two, then something really isn’t right. Unfortunately, if you are genuinely in a situation where you are unable to fulfil the outcomes you are capable of, things are unlikely to change, and you need to accept that and act accordingly.
However, all is not lost here, as there is a good chance that you ARE doing enough, and you haven’t even realised it. If you are feeling a sense of imposter syndrome or failure, maybe you have wandered into the territory of number four, and this can become a dance with the devil if you are not careful.
4. The outcome that you perceive you should be capable of
Welcome to the world of the perfectionist. Enter with caution because, in this world, ‘good enough’ just isn’t an option. This is a place where competition and comparison thrive and burnout beckons. This is where we find people whose work rate is tied to their sense of self-worth and where enough is just never enough.
This is a place where people work to the extremes, to paper over the emotional cracks of pain that hasn’t been addressed. Overworking can be a coping mechanism for many unpleasant emotions such as: low self-esteem, sadness, grief and fear.
The good news is that counselling can help with this. A good counsellor can help you acknowledge these unhelpful patterns and heal the pain they are trying to cover.
You are not alone
If you are struggling with the fear of returning to work or there is a part of you that would like to carry less or carry differently, I can help you choose what to pick up, what to discard and what can be shared with somebody else. Let me hold some of this heavy stuff for you, while you decide what you want to do next.
Find a therapist dealing with work-related stress
All therapists are verified professionals.