Updated: Jan 10
Let’s say you’re treating yourself nicely and you took a vacation from work. Hopefully, you enjoyed yourself and allowed your mind and body to rejuvenate. The fight or flight response (or sympathetic branch), which is the part of your autonomic nervous system that gets stressed out at work, got to have a breather. The other part of your autonomic nervous system, the parasympathetic branch, has had a chance to rest, recuperate, and generally enjoy life.
Congratulations! You have succeeded in practicing self-care and hopefully extending your life!
Are you anxious about returning to work?
But now you have to go back to work. You may be experiencing stress or anxiety about going back to work. This may take the form of worry thoughts about your performance or encountering unpleasant situations at work. It might also manifest as shortness of breath, tightness in your rib cage, chest or belly, dread about facing piled-up work, or being short tempered. Some of the other physical symptoms of this include headaches, backaches, stomach problems, and sleep disturbance.
With anxiety, physical and mental symptoms can feel overwhelming or confusing. You may find it hard to imagine that they will go away. When the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system is activated, it’s hard to tell which symptoms are physical and which are psychological. They often go hand-in-hand, so it’s difficult to distinguish one from the other.
This is fairly common and even has a fancy name, which is called reentry stress. Luckily, this sort of stress usually goes away. In other words, you are not saddled with this kind of anxiety forever. Like most emotional states, this type of anxiety about returning to work comes and goes.
Some causes of this type of stress include too abrupt a transition from vacation to work and feeling ambivalent or disappointed by the quality of your vacation. You may also realize that when you go back to work, all the nice things you were doing for yourself on vacation might go out the window. Your ability to rest and sleep may suffer. All that lovely activity that was giving you regular exercise might go by the wayside. You might pay too much attention to work and not put enough energy into the other areas of your life.
It could be that you worry about the amount of work to have to do when you get back to the office. All the tasks that didn’t get done before your vacation might be looming ahead of you.
Others might face returning to unpleasant relationships with their coworkers or boss. This may feel prickly and uneasy. Who wants to spend 8+ hours a day with someone like that? Issues like bullying, gossip, unequal treatment, discrimination, and simple boredom can make being at work unpalatable, anxiety-provoking, or even depressing.
Anxiety about returning to work as a signpost
Even though anxiety about returning to work after vacation is usually temporary, it may point to something bigger. For instance, it may indicate that there is something about your job or career that makes you feel truly unfulfilled. If that’s the case, it may be a good idea to examine whatever bothers you about your work. It may also indicate that you need help with stress management in general.
This type of anxiety can also be a signal that your life is out of balance, as noted previously. There are jokes about “the job they ate my brain” and being chained to your desk for many more hours than you’re supposed to work. There seems to be a general corporate culture of mandatory overtime in many workplaces.
While many companies give lip service to the importance of work-life balance, the reality is that sometimes, it just is in a lot of time for taking care of oneself properly. Some clients I work with don’t even take a lunch break because they are so busy. Is it any wonder that people get burnt out on their job? If you try to drive your car with an empty gas tank, what happens? Running on empty doesn’t work very well for cars or for people.
Reentry stress is not just a phenomenon that happens with anxiety about ending vacation. I also see people who have been on disability for long periods of time have a similar dread about returning to work. Unfortunately, the longer you avoid tackling whatever stress made you have to leave work, the harder it is to get back in the metaphorical saddle.
Here are some strategies for dealing with anxiety about returning to work after vacation.
Strategies to deal with anxiety about reentry into work
Some solutions to experiencing anxiety about coming back from vacation after work are to plan your reentry, reduce your work pileup, and to do something to make work more enjoyable.
If you are coming back from an extended vacation, it might help to think about how you will get back into the flow of work.
You might need to organize your workflow better, and think of possible glitches that might occur ahead of time. That way, you can be prepared with possible solutions. Before you go on vacation, you can talk to your supervisor about how to handle the workflow in your absence. That way, your supervisor can distribute it consciously ahead of time.
This can reduce the amount of work that piles up in your absence. Your supervisor can also help you choose projects that are more critical to concentrate on before you go on vacation.
Even if you didn’t plan ahead, you can still triage the work that you have and think about what is most important. If you’re not sure, you can talk to your manager or supervisor about it. Assuming that they are reasonable and cooperative, that can be a productive and helpful conversation for both of you.
Those pesky work emails
Some articles you might read online suggest checking only the essential emails and calls from work, but I disagree. I see the logic of this, but I think that it keeps you thinking about work while you’re on vacation. How can you really let go of all the stress that you’re experiencing at work, if you are still even partially immersed in it?
If it makes sense for your particular job, maybe you can put a hold on your email or have an automatic responded saying that you will be out of the office until a certain date; then the recipient of the message will not expect an immediate response. This way, you can relax more easily, knowing that people who send your work email will not hear from you until that date.
In terms of enjoying your work, maybe it would help to think about what made you choose that job when you got it initially. Think back to what excited you about it, and why you decided to dedicate so many hours of your life to working with that company.
Another way to approach this is to look for things at work that you enjoy, even if it’s just the people that you work with, or the fact that they have really good coffee. Whatever little pleasures you can find at work can start to relaying you to pleasure rather than pain at work.
Human doing versus human being
All of this assumes, of course, that you can take the time off without obsessing about work during your off time. Some people have a hard time doing that because they place all of their value as human beings and their ability to earn a paycheck.
While we certainly revere productivity in our society, that is not the sum total of who you are as a human being. Focusing on this so fervently negates the other aspects of your existence and relegates you to a means of production, a cog in the industrial wheel. If that is how your work makes you feel, this probably will not be sustainable for your mental and physical well-being. It could also reflect that your self-esteem could use some work.
A spiritual teacher of mine once told me that if you require external things like money, sex, alcohol and drugs, a flashy new car, etc. to be happy, you will forever be chasing after those things and never truly content. How do you find inner contentment in what you have? How can you bring a better attitude to your work and to life in general?
I know one man I worked with spent some time journaling and doing some deep self-reflection during the time that he was sick and quarantined with COVID-19. He reevaluated his relationship with his girlfriend, his family are gorging, and his purpose in life. Even though he is not completely fulfilled by work, he is able to enjoy it now that he is healthy and able to go back to work.
This might be a good strategy for reducing anxiety about going to work, because the more you know about yourself that understand, the clearer the choices you make about how you want to live your life.
It is not unusual to feel anxiety about returning to work after a vacation. Luckily, it is temporary and there are many things that you can do to prevent yourself from getting stuck in anxiety-land. If you feel that your anxiety is holding you back from enjoying life and work, please give me a call and we can see how I can help.