Working Smarter

8 Things You Can Do to Leave Work Stress at Work and Sleep Better

Posted by Joe Robinson

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More and more of us are taking work home with us, and I’m not talking about checking work email at the dinner table. I'm referring to the stowaway work thoughts that we can’t turn off and keep us on the job, even if we’re at home.

Not being able to shut off work in our heads is a huge problem that drives chronic stress, robs us of recovery time and life balance, and hops in bed at night with us to throttle and blow up our sleep. And if all that weren’t bad enough, new research has found that stress doesn’t just make it harder to sleep, but that the sleep loss it causes itself makes us even more anxious, providing a tag team of stress that operates in a vicious cycle.

INSULT TO SLEEP INJURY

It turns out that poor sleep can cause anxiety all by itself. U. C. Berkeley researchers Eti Ben Simon and Matthew Walker found that sleep deprivation caused a 30% increase in anxiety levels, an amount similar to that in people with anxiety disorders. Brain scans showed that the rational part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, had less activity, while the emotional regions had more.

With the analytical part of the brain subordinated to emotional focus, one of the purposes of sleep—to counter the activation of strain during the day and provide rest and resetting through the body’s own balancing operation—was undermined.

When we take stress home with us and don’t have work recovery and stress management strategies to get the stress down, we set ourselves up for a pattern of cumulative and chronic stress that piles on and becomes an unwelcome bedtime companion.

Insomnia is one of the most common side effects of stress, causing some 75% of cases. The stress response keeps the survival equipment activated even when we are sleeping, including the hormone of cortisol, which is an arousal agent. It’s a stimulant, like drinking a couple cups of coffee before bedtime. 

Guzzling caffeine is not a prescription for sweet dreams, and neither is a flood of cortisol, which is designed to heighten alertness and battle-stations mode for life-and-death moments. The normal pattern of cortisol in the body is that we get sleepy when our cortisol levels are at their lowest, just before shuteye, and we wake up when they are at their highest, in the morning.

Stowaway work stress or any kind of stress blows that up, resulting in fitful nights that, as the new research shows, create additional anxiety. The reason for this is that insomnia and chronic sleep problems set off pretty much the same cascade of sleep-disruption changes in the body as the stress response. The heart rate increases, body temperature goes up (which also wakes us up), and, of course, cortisol jumps too, creating what is known as an “over-alertness obstacle” to getting to sleep and staying asleep.

DETACHING FROM WORK THOUGHTS

Thinking

The answer to this one-two punch to the sleeping gut is to turn off the events of the workday when we leave the office. The key to do doing that, say work recovery researchers, are strategies that allow us to detach ourselves from work thoughts.

This is hard for many of us to do, since our culture has trained us to believe that self-worth comes from only one part of our identity, work. As a result, we fixate on all the events of work with nothing else to take their place.

So the first place to start to get separation from the job is to understand that the performance identity of our professional side is not the sum total of our self-worth. It’s just part of who we are, a persona, that provides an easy social handle for others. If we find worth nowhere but on the job, we default to that and the thoughts it generates even when we are not at the desk.

Our real identity lies in a realm that is the whole point of the work, life. This is the hiding-in-plain-sight counterbalance to the demands of the job and the tensions that come from it, and it's the goal of all work-life balance—to get more of it on the table.

Studies show that engaged leisure activities reduce stress (Coleman, Iso-Ahola), restore energy, boost positive mood through control and social support (Chalip, Thomas), and increase mastery and core needs, such as autonomy and competence.

Work recovery strategies that interrupt, crowd out stressful thoughts, and shift mood can turn off the cycle of stowaway work stress. Yet they don’t happen by themselves. We have to make them happen and be the entrepreneur of our life through proactive decisions to engage with recovery activities—relaxation processes, recreation, and mastery activities, the latter of which is the most effective at cutting stress, since it builds esteem and competence, which crowd out intrusive negative thoughts.

dance class

We have to see life activation, participation in recreation, and, yes, recess as valuable as the work. There’s no success like recess. Stepping back resets the brain, restores energy, recharges and refuels. The two keys to sustainable happiness, Sonia Lyubomirsky and Kennon Sheldon found in their research, is initiating intentional activities and sustaining intentional activities.

So let’s start flipping the switch on stress. Here are some key steps:

8 WAYS TO LEAVE WORK THOUGHTS AT WORK

1. Mark the end of the workday with a lights-out finishing ritual. Turn your coffee mug over, turn off the light in the office, unplug from work email. Create an action that lets you know the swarm of work thoughts is over for the day.

2. Set stop times. You can set your phone to trigger an alarm to go off an hour before the end of the workday to give you an early-warning that it's time to start winding down and to go off again when it’s time to go. There’s more work and email than anyone can do in a day. We have to cultivate a regular schedule of stopping the work part of the day and starting the life part, or it doesn’t happen.

3. Create a buffer zone after work. I call it a “pressure drop,” the first 30 minutes when you get home. You are like a deep-sea diver coming up from the depths of high pressure and now you have to adjust to another zone. This is a good time for relaxation strategies—walking, listening to music you like (which is super-effective at shifting mood and negative emotions with it), meditation, yoga.

4. Dispute rumination. If you are thinking about some work event over and over, stop and dispute it. The stress alarm driving the rumination is false. You are not going to die from the catastrophic or extreme thought in your head. Identify the false story behind the stress, the most likely story (just the facts), and create a new story going forward. You will handle it. You always do.

5. Counterpunch thoughts of fatigue that prevent you from getting out and engaging in fun activities that reduce stress. It's more of a mood than a state of physical paralysis. You can do this by making a plan, putting it on your calendar and having an alarm go off to remind you to get off the couch. Don't fall for the first mood. As soon as you are out at your intentional activity, you will be glad you are participating in your life.

6.Treat recreation like brushing your teeth or watching your cholesterol. It’s your key to health and emotional hygiene. Get out rain or shine to the gym, to run, ride a bike, see a movie. Intentional activities make up the 40% of our potential happiness that we actually have control over.

7. Start life-tasting. Get online and research potential classes you can take—pottery, painting, volleyball, dancing. Sign up and start learning, something your brain craves. Find a learning experience you can do on a regular basis, at least once a week but hopefully a couple times. Once you are out in the activity, focus on the rules of the activity or game disrupts and destroys stress and work thoughts—what are they? Long gone.

8. Stick with it. Don’t be an adult and bail if the new activity gets hard and you may feel foolish because you don’t know how to do something perfectly as soon as you start it. Worrying about what other people think keeps you from growing and having fun as you develop skills and gratify core needs. You, not them, are the audience. Only you can make yourself happy by satisfying your inner need equipment.

Switching off stowaway stress requires getting off autopilot thought-factory action and going into planning mode. We have to put life on the calendar, get off the ad hoc “when I have time” default, and take it as seriously as our work.

When we have an active world outside the job, we build an identity apart from what’s on the business card. This strengthens, not just our resilience to stress, but our identity as a person as well as a professional producer.

The more we have a part of ourselves that boosts us up and makes us feel good no matter what happened that day at work, the more we can close our eyes at night, sleep soundly, and wake up without feeling we have been in a 15-round boxing match. The result: We always wake up on the right side of the bed.

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Tags: stress and sleep, work recovery, leave work at work, stress and recreation, sleep, work stress and sleep

The Science of Work Recovery: How to Leave Work Stress at Work

Posted by Joe Robinson

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IN THE BEST stress management advice ever delivered in a pop song, Paul McCartney gave it a good try. Though tens of millions heard his plea, few “let it be.”

McCartney had it exactly right. So much angst in life has to do with the inability of the brain to let go of things. A schnauzer or a tabby is adept at this, dropping a stressful moment like it never happened. Humans, unfortunately, did not get this talent.

DETOXING BY DETACHING

Stress is a byproduct of exaggerated fears and thoughts we give life to by hanging on to them and ruminating about them incessantly. Rumination entranches false beliefs and makes them appear real. It’s pretty darn masochistic, but most of it comes from autopilot behavior programmed by an overactive defense system. We can opt out of reflex cling mode with awareness.

One of the keys to managing a major source of circular worries, job stress, as well as creating better work-life balance, is leaving work at work. That shuts off the day's stressors and allows the body to repair itself from the effects of strain and tension. It’s called work recovery by researchers, a process of detaching from work thoughts and engaging in experiences that help restore the body to pre-stressor levels. It's a reset button that flips the switch on stowaway stress with proactive recovery strategies.

Initiating leisure and recuperative strategies is something few of us are equipped for in a culture in which idle time is the devil’s time. As a result, most of us go home without a plan for how to let go of the day’s events and shift over to another mindset. And managers would never imagine that they can play a major role in the process simply by encouraging staff to recharge after work in whichever way they enjoy—exercise, to music and hobbies.

The science shows that psychological detachment from work through relaxation and recreation isn’t something to feel guilty about—it’s essential for attention, engagement, and health. Without recovery from the strain that results from unmanaged demands, any number of medical issues, from cardiovascular disease to irritable bowel to burnout can occur, as well as poor performance, cynicism, presenteeism and absenteeism.

RECOVERY IS A TWO-WAY STREET

Research by Sabine Sonnentag and Charlotte Fritz and others has documented that a break from the work state of mind allows recovery from strain and ends the pattern of negative affect that drives pessimism and chronic stress. Studies show that people who are able to detach from the day's work tensions are more likely to report positive mood in the morning and a reduction in stress. No doubt, these folks are also having a lot more fun, since stress suppresses the play equipment in the brain.

New research shows that turning off the stress replay machine after work is as critical for employees and leaders as it is during work hours, and that managers can play a key role in helping employees restore well-being at home. A study that looked at the intersection of supervisor signals and norms around recovery (Bennett, Gabriel, Calderwood, Dahling, Trougakos) found that when employees are encouraged by managers to unwind after work, they are more likely to do just that, leading to a healthier staff and workplace. “If supervisors adopt norms supporting employees leaving work at work, employees will seek to meet these expectations,” the authors wrote. 

Supervisors who are supportive of exercise, recreation, and pastimes have a big influence on the employee’s ability to shift out of the work mind and get the relaxation, social interaction, or detachment they need for recovery. Job strain and time pressure over the course of the day tax mental resources, requiring extra effort to get anything done. If energetic and self-regulation resources burned up over the course of the day aren’t replaced, it comes out of our performance hide the next day and the next in the form of fatigue, researchers have found. The toll has to be countered on a daily basis. 

READING THE SIGNALS

When managers don’t signal that it’s okay to step back after work, the Bennett, Gabriel study found that employees are more prone to take work home with them and to ponder work issues. This tends to occur when supervisors and employees have a very tight connection, which is usually a good thing, especially for employee engagement. But when people are very close to their leaders, they want to help them out more, even to their detriment of not being able to let the office go after work and doing more than they can do well.

It starts with something as basic as asking what a staffer is doing to recharge and refuel. Inquire about hobbies. What do they do for exercise? Let them know that performance is the sum total of the whole person—energy, health, optimism, and mood. People who go home with negative affect and stress that is not alleviated come back to work the next day with negative affect. Let employees know you want them to leave the workday at the office and live a healthy life outside it, since a fresh and energized mind is the key to productivity in the knowedge economy.

So what can we do to restore resources at the end of the day and shut off the stress loop? Let’s look at the four main routes to work recovery: psychological detachment, relaxation, mastery, and control. Studies show that these recovery processes can reduce fatigue, increase work engagement (Brummelhuis, Bakker) and improve health and well-being (Sonnentag, Binnewies, Mojza).

 FOUR RECOVERY KEYS

1. Psychological detachment. This is a fancy description of something pretty logical. Stop thinking about work and the worries that flow from it. It's easier said than done, though, when the adrenaline is high after a tough day and/or commute, and the rumination parade of projected anxieties is under way.

Continuing to think and talk about work issues keeps you mentally at work, so find ways to change the subject. Another option is to create physical and electronic barriers to prevent the default to a desk or work emails and help separate work and home. Imagine yourself flipping a light switch off as you leave work. You’ve switched over to another job now, your life.

2. Relaxation. There is a false belief in our work culture that you have to be at the threshold of pain or near collapse before you are entitled to relax. Taking care of yourself needs no justification. Relaxation is built in to the human physiology. Activation periods of stress are meant to be followed by the reparative parasympathetic system of rest and maintenance. Relaxing is essential to recover and restore the body and the brain's equilibrium to pre-stressor levels. 

Create a buffer zone when you get home from work of 30 minutes or more if you can to do what you like to do to relax—go for a run, meditate, hit the gym, listen to music (one of the best stress shifters since stress is dependent on dire mood). Make it a routine. 

3. Mastery. Research shows that mastery experiences are one of the best ways to promote recovery and knock out stress. These are activities done outside of work that allow for personal growth, skill-building, and learning. We all have three core needs--autonomy, competence, and conection with others. Mastery experiences put us in touch with these needs and get us aligned with who we are. 

Whether it’s cycling, salsa dancing, learning a musical instrument or a language—studies show that the mastery process can shut off stress activation even in the middle of work, at lunchtime, as well as at home. Identify things you want to learn, potential passions, and you crowd out negative affect with positive autonomy and competence. A passion can add eight hours of joy to your week, the ultimate antidote to stress.

4. Control. The activating ingredient in stress is control, or rather, the lack of it. The more control, or latitude, we feel we have over a stressor, the less perceived stress. There are two sides of the control issue, control at work, i.e., having the ability to make some decisions about work processes, not the work itself, and leisure control, deciding how to spend your off-hours. Find ways during the day to experience more choice over how you work, or get a shot of it on a break. One study found that playing a computer game on a break increases recovery (Reinecke). 

Increased leisure control reduces strain by helping you feel more in charge of your life and able to put aside a bad day with something that lifts you up and is autonomous. The idea here is to identify what you, not others, like to do for fun and recreation and indulge it regularly. You have to be entrepreneurial about your leisure activities. No one can choose them or make them happen but you. Most of what we do outside of work is ad hoc, minus thought or planning. Put leisure ideas and activities on the calendar, or they don’t happen. Take your life as seriously as your work.

The strain-stress cycle is pretty simple in its insidiousness. It goes off automatically and we react on reflex, fanning the false alarms with rumination and helplessness. The solution is getting off autopilot,  contesting stress, and engaging in recovery processes that help us get back to the pre-stress state. Work recovery science shows us the way forward, that managing stress is both a proactive work AND life process in which we learn how to put McCartney’s advice to work. And let it be.

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Tags: stress management, stress management training, stress relief, work stress, work recovery, burnout

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