How to Leave Work at Work


How many weeks, months, or years would you regain if you hadn’t burned up the time on stress, worrying about stress, and creating more stress? Humans are sometimes hardwired to amplify anguish or anxiety with needless mental reruns. It’s part of our out-of-time survival gear. This is why after the workday is done, it’s not. You’re still at work in your mind, replaying the tensions and pressures. We don’t know how to leave work at work.

The stress replay machine makes it hard to do what the whole point of the job is: live your life and be present for it. However, you can leave work at work and drop the rehash that makes all non-work appear frivolous, crowds out free time, and makes you feel guilty about enjoying your all-important off-hours.

Why You Need a Consistent Break From Stress

Here’s the problem: Stress suppresses the play equipment in your brain. The last thing the fight-or-flight response wants you to do when it thinks you’re in a life-and-death moment is have fun.

Luckily, the science of work recovery is here to help us escape this rut. Researchers in this little-known branch of organizational psychology say the key is psychological detachment from the job when we’re not working.

The idea is to divert thoughts from the sources of strain, stress, and fatigue through participation in regular recovery activities. The revolutionary upshot of this science is that stepping back, relaxing, and having fun are not signs of slacking but essential tools for productivity, health, and life. As a matter of fact, they are your life.

On the productivity side alone, studies have shown for a century that performance increases after breaks. Consistent periods of recovery via breaks reduce fatigue and decrease the rate that productivity drops as strain develops. In a Cornell University study, productivity increased 13 percent when employees were reminded to take breaks.

Most of my coaching clients have difficulty getting off-task and feeling good about it. They’ve been trained to draw their worth from what they get done, when that’s just one piece of identity. The truth is, output needs fuel—input in the form of life, curiosity, learning, fun, exercise, and attention. All of that is exactly what’s provided by rest and recovery. These are the engines of performance.

There’s No Arguing With Physiology

It’s hard to feel guilty about the physics of your own body. We’re all subject to what’s known as the effort-recovery model. Energy burned up by strain and stress has to be replaced. Your physiology is born to do this—if you let it through the rest-and-digest functions of the parasympathetic nervous system. You can’t stay up for a week straight and ace the presentation. You can’t stay on task for very long—some say not more than three hours—without attention going south. It’s called the time-on-task effect. Concentration degrades with time, and the brain has to get off-task to reset.

The same reboot is especially needed after the workday. If strain and stress aren’t switched off, the body and mind can’t turn off battle stations and resupply nutrients and energetic resources to return the physiology to pre-stressor levels. Otherwise, you face the health blowback that occurs in a survival moment—  jacked-up heart rate and blood pressure, halted digestion, increased bad cholesterol, and suppressed immune system—all of which can lead to heart disease, stroke, hypertension, and many other side effects.

The recovery process is essentially proactive unwinding. Instead of autopilot fretting, scrolling, or vegging out, you map out time away from job demands to do things that break up mental strain, restore energy, bring a sense of control, and infuse a positive mood. You can take breaks at work every few hours, go on walks or exercise at lunchtime, and engage in recreation and hobbies in the evenings—not to mention engaging in experiences you enjoy on weekends and taking advantage of vacations.

Positive Detachment Is Key—and So Is Having a Plan

Research by recovery leader Sabine Sonnentag and colleagues have found that for people who don’t detach from work after the workday, the stress of the day stays elevated. They have more fatigue and negative activation—e.g. stress, bad mood, and poor sleep. The negative side effects follow them to work the next morning. It’s a cycle that can go on for a long time unless recovery takes place.

Recharging and refueling then are essentials, not frills. It’s hard to make them happen, though, unless you do something you don’t normally do with free time—plan it. Downtime is usually ad hoc. Maybe you’ll take a break today or get together with a friend next week. Commit to put work recovery opportunities on the to-do list and calendar. Value them as seriously as your job task list.

You can choose your strategies from a mix of the main recovery categories below and build them into your evenings and weekends.

Relaxation Strategies

The goal here is to reduce the activation of stress, muscle tension, and strain through practices that let the preoccupations go. A great technique for this is progressive muscle relaxation, a very effective process of tensing and releasing various muscle groups in the body that takes about 15 minutes.

Mindfulness meditation can provide deep calm and reduce stress by training the mind to focus on a target, from mindful breathing to repeating a phrase in your mind. Meditation also tamps down on the self-referential fear hub of the brain that’s constantly asking all the survival questions: What’s wrong? How am I going to make it? What’s going to happen?

You can also relax the mind through activities that elevate your mood, such as listening to uplifting music, going for a walk, or doing yoga. The goal is to push out negative rumination.

Exercise Strategies

Working your body is a great way to get out of your head. Lifting at the gym, running, cycling—these physical actions direct focus out of the thought factory and into the world of action. Aerobic activity is particularly good at wiping the mind clean. It also famously releases endorphins that generate a tranquil and positive mood.

Mastery Strategies

Most of us tend to stop learning things that don’t have to do with work when we get busy with careers. Big mistake. Learning a skill with a new hobby is exactly what your mind wants. Brain scientist Gregory Berns says we need two things for long-term fulfillment—novelty and challenge. Mastery experiences give you both, plus something even better. They satisfy your competence need, one of your core psychological needs, and that makes mastery activities one of the most effective weapons to shut down stress.

Of course, in the beginning you’re not very good at the new activity. That’s enough to keep many from trying something new. As an adult, you’re supposed to know everything, so you feel foolish when you’re a klutz at salsa dancing or have a 12-year-old beat you on an orienteering course. Once you get over the learning curve, you may find yourself with a passion, which can add eight hours of joy to the week.

In addition, when you have something you can do well outside the job, it provides a sanctuary when things aren’t going well at the office. Your self-worth remains intact no matter what happened during the workday because your identity is no longer restricted to a single domain.

To activate work-recovery practices, you have to override guilt, busy-ness and, most importantly, the thoughts of work that drive stress. You can do the latter by bringing up your awareness to catch negative ruminations in the act and remind yourself they’re just thoughts. Thoughts aren’t real. Only experience is real.

You can also use the science to preempt reflex rumination with cues of intention and commitment to change the pattern. Dutch researcher Jan de Jonge helped subjects in a study of burned-out medical staff change default work thoughts with these statements. Tell yourself:

“After work, I put aside all thoughts of work.
After work, I put aside all emotions of work.
After work, I put aside all physical exertion.”

Joe Robinson is author of Work Smarter, Live Better: The Science-Based Work-Life Balance and Stress Management Toolkit and a stress management trainer and coach at

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