The other day, I was eating dinner at home and my partner was sharing something about work that day.  What that something was I cannot fully remember. I was hearing the words but I was not listening. I was physically there but I was not mentally present. I was caught in my head thinking about things that happened during my workday. My body was agitated, and I had the urge to check my emails, which in fact I did more than once.  I missed out on an opportunity to connect and by the time I got to bed I did not feel rested, and my sleep was also disrupted.

If you struggle to switch off from work, then welcome. It is easy for many of us to get hooked by the demands of a working day and by the chatter of our mind that is biased towards what has gone wrong. Work is an important area for many of us and the things that we worry about are often a reflection of the things that we care about. So if something goes wrong at work it makes sense that this may trigger a range of difficult thoughts and emotions that make it hard to switch off from work.

The good news is that we can learn ways of managing this. Here are my key tips for how we can learn to switch off from work.

Identify signs that you are not switching off

Understand what warning signs your emotions, body, mind and behaviours give you to indicate that you cannot switch off from work. Here are some examples of signs that people have described to me: you zone out of conversations, ask the other person to repeat, stare into the distance, fidget, feel a sense of busy-ness in the mind and body, feel distracted, unable to sit still, and you worry about the same thing over and over again. Have a think about what your signs are. What would people observe about your behaviour and body language when your mind is elsewhere? Being aware of your warning signs can enable you to notice them in the moment and do something about it.

At the end of your working day, check in with yourself

Take a moment to check how you are feeling emotionally and in your body at the end of your working day. Observe whether any thoughts are occupying your mind. Maybe you feel stressed because your to-do list is unfinished, or you feel frustrated because it was not a productive day. Maybe your brain feels full and you have no mental capacity left or you feel anxious about a difficult conversation with a colleague. Understanding your emotional and mental state is important and may give you clues of work-related preoccupations that may spill over into your after-work life. You can find out more about how to check in with yourself here.

Create a transition from work to home

Use your check in information to create a transition from work to home. Transitions allow us to start to switch off from work by gradually leaving our work mode and opening up to moving into new roles, activities or relationships. If our minds and bodies have been in a state of overdrive or threat at work, it is natural that they may need time to settle down and feel safe again. Transitions can take on different forms based on the information you gathered in your check in and what you need that day:

  • Make a plan to figure out how you are going to resolve your outstanding problem
  • Update your to-do list with the unfinished items
  • Take note of the unfinished and nonurgent tasks and let them go for that day
  • Choose which tasks you want to prioritise and deprioritise tomorrow
  • Ask for a chat with a colleague, friend or family member to help you process what is on your mind
  • Create some physical space from work especially if you work from home by leaving the house or going into a different room
  • Make your commute a time for you to slow down and engage in something different such as people watching or listening to your favourite music
  • Move your body and exercise before going home
  • Take a decision to leave work behind before stepping into the door to be with your people
  • Take a breath

Accept that tricky thoughts and emotions about work may still pop up

It is important to understand that switching off from work does not mean getting rid of your thoughts and feelings about work. Of course, we may wish for these to disappear because they may not feel good, however, this is not within our control and they may still show up. Fighting them will make the situation worse because the more we push them away, the more they will push back. It can be helpful to bring a gentle attitude of acceptance to them even though we may not like these thoughts and feelings. Accepting does not mean that we become consumed by them either. Rather, we can learn to allow these thoughts and feelings to have some space in our mind. We can remind ourselves that this is our mind’s way of trying to tell us something important about something we care about. Acknowledging our thoughts and feelings in this way can actually quieten them down.

Practice mindfulness and self-compassion

It is only by remaining mindful and connected with our mind, emotions and body after work, can we notice signs that we cannot switch off and do something about it. We can also notice added emotions that may be triggered such as frustration that we are still thinking about work and shame for not being present in the moment even though we planned to be. This is where we need to work on our self-compassion muscles. We can acknowledge what is happening without giving ourselves a hard time by saying: ‘ok it’s happening, I am distracted again’. We can offer ourselves words of compassion using a gentle tone such as: ‘I know this is frustrating. I expected this to happen, Angelica mentioned it in her blog post. It’s ok I can manage this’. Compassion allows us to be sensitive to our difficulty and at the same time it moves us towards more helpful actions. Helpful actions may include reminding ourselves of any plans we have to address the work concern tomorrow, talking through the problem with someone, or setting boundaries with work talk and focusing on what we are doing in the present.

Engage back into the moment

As we allow thoughts and emotions about work to be there in the background, on purpose we can then shift our attention back to our body and to what we are doing in that moment. We can use our senses to orient back into the present by looking at what is right in front of us, tuning into what is being said, noticing the flavours of what we are eating and drinking, and connecting with what we can touch. When our mind wanders back to work 20 more times, that’s OK, each time we can guide it back to what we are experiencing and doing in the moment. This can help us to connect with things other than work that are meaningful to us and to experience moments of ease, connection, and joy that are important for our rest and recovery after work.

Keep noticing and practicing

There are still many times when I cannot switch off from work. The difference nowadays is that through mindfulness and compassion focussed practice I can notice when this is happening sooner and shift my focus back to what I am doing after work. You can do this too. By learning about the nature of your mind and cultivating psychological tools you can learn how to leave more of work at work by getting out of your head and back into the present moment.

I’d love to hear about how you get along with practicing switching off from work. Get in touch via email or or Instagram at @dr.angelica.attard


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