Why do people struggle to switch off from work?

May 24, 2018 | Executive Coaching

It’s not (in my opinion) for the reasons you might think…

During mental health awareness week last week, my social media newsfeeds were jammed with advice about work life balance and how important it is to take time for yourself outside of work, so you don’t develop a mental health problem. Sounds like good advice. I have a different perspective on this though so it made sense to write about it.  This article specifically focuses on work place stress.

What is stress?

First of all, stress does not come as a result of workload. In fact, over my years of working with my clients, the stress appears to me to be linked to one’s perceived ability to achieve the amount of work, and a belief that one might not be okay if they don’t.  Two people could have exactly the same volume of work, same boss, same abilities etc, all the conditions the same, but one feels stressed and another doesn’t.

I have also observed people moving in and out of a feeling of stress without the circumstances changing at all.  Stress is a natural emotion that ebbs and flows. Personally I have experienced feeling stressed on a ‘relaxing’ holiday and calm in a ‘difficult’ situation and many of my clients report the same.

I am confident that it’s not the workload. It’s important to point to this. Not because I think people need to get over it, change their thinking, or buck their ideas up. Quite the opposite. When they realise that stress comes and goes regardless of workload, they stop chasing the idea of needing to get the work done in order to stop feeling stressed.

Why some can’t switch off

This leads me nicely on to the second point, which is to look at why it is that some people find it difficult to stop working, or switch off from work once they are back home.  Sometimes people are just super passionate about what they do, so to switch off just doesn’t make any sense to them.  For others, it’s a rather different scenario. One of constant alertness and worry about what needs to be done, or what could go wrong.  This is usually when people who are observing this happen in their loved ones get concerned that they are going to be negatively affected.

The reason that some are troubled enough for it to stay on their mind, long after the workday is done, is because of the misunderstanding that a person’s wellbeing comes from something external. E.g. their job, their salary, their reputation at work, promotion opportunities, and  so on.  If that’s the case, then they believe that something going wrong would mean that they are not okay. If they see their work in this way, and it being all on them to make sure that it doesn’t, then yes they are very likely to experience stress, and find it difficult to switch off from their work.

work stress brought home

I’m writing this article to challenge this understanding.  This belief that how ‘okay’ you are comes from something external.  That you are not okay with these external things being right.  To me, that just doesn’t look true anymore.

Let’s think about it. I strongly doubt that anybody ever lay on their death bed and wished they’d taken their work more seriously. Why is this? It’s because at the point of being close to death they understand something. They understand that they are perfectly fine and have always been. Effort spent pursuing external factors in order to create happiness actually creates the opposite, because we are buying into the idea that we are not okay already.

You are always okay

As I discussed in the article last week – wellbeing is always with us but we forget this, and pay attention to the insecure separate self that it looks like we are.  The one that needs to do well at work.  To be thought of in a certain way.  That needs to earn a certain amount… On our death bed we see through this, and understand that happiness/wellbeing etc. is always with us, and we couldn’t give a hoot what this insecure separate self has been telling us. Our true self knows better. It knows that our wellbeing is nothing to do with how good we are at our job, what our boss thinks of us, whether we do the deal or get the promotion.

Interestingly knowing this doesn’t mean we suddenly start slacking off and become a professional beanbag, who is too at peace to care about their work. It just means that there is a different flavour to the thoughts. When we know we are okay always, we actually tend to work better!  With more passion and creativity.  We can work with the sort of approach we would take to expressing ourselves in an enjoyable way, rather than with stress. Without the pressure of needing to get things right! We may also find it easier to worry less when we are trying to spend time with our families.  This is certainly the experience my clients are reporting having.

Want to know more about how I can help? Drop me a line or give me a call. A successful coaching relationship depends upon a great rapport, so it’s important to talk. I want to get to know you, see inside your world and we can assess how we’d go from there!