How to leave work-related stress at the office door
Experts offer tips on how to leave work stress at the door when you clock off.
Overwork in the Asia-Pacific region is endemic. A report by Kisi, Cities for the Best Work–Life Balance 2019, found that Tokyo and Singapore were the top two most overworked cities in the world, while Kuala Lumpur came in at number four.
In Australia, a 2018 report by the Australia Institute found that, on average, workers perform 312 hours – or eight weeks – of unpaid work each year across all forms of employment.
The overwork trend is symptomatic of an “always on” work culture that has permeated workplaces everywhere, and one that has seen a corresponding rise in workplace stress.
A recent Beyond Blue survey found that 25 per cent of small business owners in Australia experience high levels of psychological distress. Among sole traders, the rates are even higher, at 36 per cent.
Well-managed stress is healthy, motivating us and driving performance, says organisational psychologist Kathryn Page, the national wellbeing and inclusion leader at Tennis Australia and honorary fellow at Deakin University’s School of Psychology.
Stress becomes unhealthy when it is constant and beyond the control of individuals, caused by external factors like excessive workloads, exposure to poor management practices, and extended periods of change such as downsizing or restructuring.
“Organisations can help… by encouraging managers to have conversations with their people about personal boundaries.” Kathryn Page
Also contributing to the rise in stress are policies like workplace flexibility, which are designed to make employees’ lives easier. “We work from home more often, and technology makes it harder for us to disconnect from work,” Page says.
Unchecked workplace stress can affect our relationships, she says, “making it harder to focus on others [and] reducing our ability to connect and be present with people”.
When we’re stressed, our health also invariably suffers. “When we are overloaded, we tend to make unhealthy life choices, like cutting out exercise, eating poorly… and drinking more alcohol,” Page says, adding that unmanaged stress can also lead to sleeping problems.
The interconnected effects of stress can form a destructive spiral, she says. “When we’re stressed … we don’t sleep, we get short-tempered, which might cause us to snap at our partner, which then creates relationship conflict and exacerbates workplaces stress. It’s a messy business.”
How to leave workplace stress at the door
The first step is to create clear boundaries between work and home. “As life and work become more flexible, we … need to become much more structured and disciplined in the way we approach work,” Page says.
Know your “non-negotiables”, she says. “I know that if I work a 10-plus hour day more than one day a week, then I start to slip into a feeling of being overworked, which triggers other behaviours like skipping the gym, cancelling social plans and ordering take-out. I try to be really strict about my work hours or to give time back to myself by starting late the following day.”
Make your own rules, whether it’s to avoid work emails after hours or to escape your desk at lunchtime. “These things can be easier said than done,” acknowledges Page.
“Organisations can help… by encouraging managers to have conversations with their people about personal boundaries.”
Page also recommends creating psychological space between work and home. That might mean visiting the gym after work or going for a walk to unwind. If possible, take public transport so “you can read rather than deal with the stress of traffic”, she suggests.
“If you do drive, try listening to a podcast that engages you mentally. When we do this, we prepare ourselves to be both mentally and emotionally present in our home life.”
Beyond Blue lead clinical adviser Dr Grant Blashki recommends that patients schedule important activities like spending time with family and friends or time to exercise in their calendar.
“Don’t wait until everything on the work to-do list is done as you rarely ever complete everything.”
An extended break from work over summer can offer the ideal opportunity to shake off workplace stress. For some, says Blashki, switching off comes easily. “They kick into the summer holiday mode without much effort. For others, the steam train of work momentum is hard to slow down.”
He suggests several strategies to help us make the most of a summer holiday: switching off electronic communications, catching up with friends, getting lost in a good novel, taking up a hobby, or getting fit.
“The truth is we all need to take a break from work, to recharge and reinvigorate,” he says. “Many people find they come back refreshed and motivated about work after a proper break.”
Finding the right activity to recharge after work
Recharging is not just about sitting on the couch at home – it’s an active process that counteracts physical, social and mental depletion caused by a busy week at work. Page suggests opting for activities that:
- Elicit a strong positive emotional response like laughter or joy. “Exercise can play a role here,” Page says.
- Create a sense of personal growth, like learning a new skill that has absolutely nothing to do with work, or listening to a podcast.
- Engage us mentally, so that we don’t have time to think about work, such as rock climbing or reading a book on the train.
- Create social connection, such as playing a team sport or helping a friend.
- Give us a sense of control, whether it’s reorganising cupboards or writing a to-do list for the following day.