EMOTIONAL HEALTH
November 18, 2015

When Work Worries Follow You Home

Having trouble disconnecting your brain from work? Some simple steps can help.

Even when you're not at work, you probably spend time thinking about it, especially when your workload is really demanding. When you’re home at night trying to relax from work after hours, it can be hard to detach mentally and stop thinking about those tasks, big or small, that are still in progress back at the office.

This has become more of an issue in the age of ever-connectedness via the smartphone. A new study confirms that it’s hard to turn off our work brains at night, and offers a way to help you do just this by making some quick notes about unfinished tasks.

“If you have an important deadline looming on the horizon, for example, your brain will keep nudging you with reminders, which makes it difficult to get a break from work demands.”

Over 100 employees filled out online surveys about their jobs and the projects and goals that went along with those jobs. People said they had more trouble detaching from their work when they had uncompleted projects hanging over their heads — in other words, they likely had trouble letting go of tasks that were still “open cases” to them.

Those in the study also reported they had a harder time letting go of tasks that they cared more about.

“If you have an important deadline looming on the horizon, for example, your brain will keep nudging you with reminders,” study author Brandon Smit said in a news release, “which makes it difficult to get a break from work demands.”

One thing did make it easier to let go of work while at home: When people were asked to write down details about how they’d finish the unfinished projects, they were able to detach more. Writing down simple parameters, like how, when, and where they would complete the tasks made it easier to stop thinking about the work — especially for people who were naturally more prone to thinking of work in their downtime.

“It seems like we have the ability to ‘turn off’, or at least ‘turn down,’ these cognitive processes by planning out where, when, and how goals will be accomplished,” said Smit.

Some of us are more likely to obsess about work matters in our downtime, which can make it difficult to sleep. If work is consistently on your mind when you’re trying to relax, try writing down a few notes about how you’ll get it done when the time is right. Just doing that may be enough to free your mind to enjoy what’s going on in the present.

Getting what’s on your mind about work out of your head and down on paper seems to remove some of the elements of uncertainty, which can keep a person pondering a problem for too long.

For people who have a difficult time forgetting about work, often because their job plays a central role in their life, says Smit, simply changing their work routine so they end the workday planning tasks for tomorrow can make a real difference. It can also help to finish up smaller, more manageable tasks towards the end of the day, to reduce the amount of unfinished business when it’s time to head home.

Previous research has shown that writing in a journal can be extremely therapeutic, since it allows a person to put what’s on their mind down on paper. This act of writing, like talk therapy itself, gives one a stronger sense of control of the problem, making it less looming and more ordered.

Getting what’s on your mind about work out of your head and down on paper seems to remove some of the elements of uncertainty, which can keep a person pondering a problem for too long. So next time you just can’t seem to get your mind off your work, try jotting down some small details about how you’ll finish the problem when you’re back at work. And then, hopefully, you’ll be able to enjoy your friends, family, or just your own free time.

The study was carried out at Ball State University and is published in the Journal of Organizational and Occupational Psychology.

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