How to leave work at work (and stop stressing)

How to leave work at work without feeling guilty

In 2019, 60% of Americans said that there weren’t enough hours in a day to get everything done. Hello 2020 and we’re hit by a global pandemic that’s seen unemployment skyrocket and businesses taking massive strain. For those lucky enough to still have a job, how to leave work at work when you need an income has become a challenge.

Despite all the press about a healthy work-life balance and employees opting for less money in favor of quality of life, things ain’t what they used to be. Where working from home seemed like an ideal dream only a few months ago, it’s become the norm overnight. People started off enthusiastically and then found they’re nor equipped mentally for this stuff. Most of us are still adjusting to finding a remote work-life balance.

Here’s a tip from me: forget about work-life balance and start thinking about work-life integration. Whether you’re going to work remotely indefinitely or have already returned to the workplace, you need a change of mindset.  

Understand the human mind

I’m not talking about getting into in-depth psychology here. It’s about accepting basic mental health facts that are hardwired into all of us. Once you can accept them, you can go easier on yourself.

Threat perception has followed us from cave living to modern living. Subconsciously we’re all constantly looking out for anything that might be a threat to our wellbeing or survival. Currently, people across the world are on very high alert, whether they’re aware of it or not.

The human brain perceives change as a threat, so we instinctively resist change. Defying the concept of change is an innate form of protection against impending danger.

Being surrounded by real and perceived threats as well as sudden and unanticipated change causes the brain to trigger fear responses.

Today’s world is filled with anxiety caused by natural events that have an enormous impact on our lives. Apart from a global pandemic, we’re also trying to cope with ever-increasing natural disasters and ongoing climate change. So if you feel stressed and as if you’re not coping, give yourself a break. You’re reacting, consciously or subconsciously, to primal survival patterns that are imprinted in our brain.

Once you understand that, you can regain control over how you respond to yourself and your work and home life.

The business world has become brutal

Just as you’re struggling to cope, so is everyone else. Uncertainty creates volatility, but also opportunity. Survival means you need to adapt your mindset and let go of how things were done and focus on the now.

Whether you’re an employee, in a leadership role or an entrepreneur building a startup, accept that people are going to be more demanding. Unfortunately, in a time when we need more kindness in business, stress and insecurity will drive unkindness. Nasty emails and messages, insistent telephone calls, unreasonable deadlines and pressure to deliver as much as possible in a short time will become the order of the day.

Downward pressure, upward pressure, customer pressure and supplier pressure mean that many demands made on you and your time will be unreasonable. But we all have limited mental, physical, and emotional capacity. Once we start going beyond what we can give we gradually begin gearing down until, eventually we come to a halt – burnout!

Take back control

A change of mindset allows you to put yourself back in the driving seat of what and how much you can do. Also, you can accept and prepare for times of extreme pressure. With so much going down, we can’t expect our lives to carry on routinely. There will be times when we’ll have to prioritize work and times when home life comes first.

Reassess your job responsibilities, how your organization has changed and also your family and home life commitments. Work out a plan to reorganize in the immediate term and adapt if necessary. Sit down and discuss the situation with the relevant people so that they have a clear understanding as well.

Explain how things have transitioned, and will likely continue to do so. Also, set very clear boundaries. Without taking these steps, you won’t be able to figure out how to leave work stress at work.

7 boundaries to help you effectively leave work at work

Setting boundaries can be difficult because it means learning to say “no” at work and home. Without firm boundaries, however, others will quickly take advantage of us. And every time they do, they wear us down just a little bit more.

Not every job is the same and circumstances differ, so you must figure out how to leave work at work in a way that meets your needs and responsibilities. Some things do apply to most of us, though and here’s a list of them.

Get the right tech onboard

Whether it’s a task management app, a project management system, or a digital calendar, make use of technology to keep track of what needs to get done. Enter tasks immediately they come up with a due date and close things that are finished. 

Don’t try to memorize your “to-do” list because that’s a sure way to overlook something and cause unnecessary stress. Confirm that you’ve completed what was needed and check the next day’s jobs at the end of every working day. Then close the system down because you’ve got it under control. Don’t ruminate over it during your downtime or lose sleep over whether you’ll get it all done. That’s for tomorrow!

Be upfront

If an unexpected task lands on your desk, assess your commitments for the day and discuss it with your team members or manager. See if any existing deadlines can get rescheduled. If not, ask if the task can be handled by someone else or if they can take over one of your current jobs. 

Taking on more than you can manage puts you under pressure, impacts the quality of your work and can see you accused of poor performance. By being upfront, you’re telling management that you already have too much on your plate. On the other hand, keeping quiet and taking the work gives the impression that you’re coping.

Make your availability known

Technology has made communication very easy, but it can also be exhausting if you don’t lay down firm ground rules. Be very clear about when you’ll be available after hours and stick to your times. If, for example, you say that you’ll only reply to business communication until 7 PM, do that! 

Once you go replying to messages and answering calls beyond that time, people will carry on contacting you. Conversely, if they call or message you after 7 PM and don’t hear from you, they’ll respect your hours.

Set family rules

Let your friends and family know that you’re not available during your standard workday hours unless it’s an absolute emergency. Particularly if you’re now working from home, friends and family might think they can call to chat or even pop in. Say no! 

Maybe they’ll feel slighted for a while, but they’ll get the message. Keeping other people happy isn’t worth risking your job or your mental health and wellbeing.

Plan for emergencies

Unplanned and planned predicaments inevitably come up, so consider what will happen with your job if you have to attend to a crisis. Discuss it with your team and work out contingency plans to help each other when necessary. 

Likewise, if an urgent project comes up at work, have a plan to take care of your family while you’re working longer hours than usual. Family, friends and neighbors will always be willing to help out if they know, and you can always return the favor.

Have a close-of-work ritual

Back to the human brain; we are creatures of habit and routine. Habits are a part of our life, and many of them help us cope and also create mental and emotional stability. In the same way many of us kiss our family goodbye when we leave and again when we return, find a way to say goodbye to work. The habit programs our mind, and if we don’t do it, we feel uncomfortable and without closure. 

Leaving work, even if it’s inside your home, is just as important. Whether it’s turning off your computer, the lights or closing the door – connect that action with leaving work for the day.

Find a chill-out ritual

In the same way you tell your mind that work is done through ritual, find another one that indicates the start of downtime. Once you enter your living space, whether it’s after a commute or walking from one room to another, do something routine every day. 

Changing your clothes is excellent as is putting on a comfy pair of slippers. If you’re into exercise, change into your gym wear or running shoes and take off. Make it a habit that your brain will recognize as your switch from one world to another.

To sum it up

How to leave work at work depends on your lifestyle, job responsibilities and role within an organization. Our thoughts fuel stress and anxiety. And while we have no control over what comes into our minds, we can control how we respond.

Setting boundaries helps us accept responsibility for what we can handle and decline what we can’t without creating guilt. Being flexible, upfront and communicating openly with team members, management and our family builds mutual trust and respect.

As remote working becomes more entrenched, mutual trust and respect will be crucial to team and business success. Issues like micromanagement and expecting feedback 24/7/365 will wear leaders and employees down. Collaborating on how to leave work at work has never been more critical than right now.

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