Many professional women who are close friends and colleagues have talked with me about the
challenges of leaving work at work. With success comes promotion, with promotion comes more
responsibility, and with more responsibility comes more issues to keep track of in your head.
In the past few years, I have witnessed the beautiful, developing minds of a new crop of infants and toddlers, as I am now affectionately known as “Auntie Angie.” Playing with little kids reminds me how easy it is for them to stay in the moment and not get encumbered by all of the competing obligations that build up in our daily planners. So my post today addresses the question of how we go from the infant mind to the all-consuming adult work mind, and how can we learn to be better about leaving work AT work.
A key aspect of understanding why it is challenging to leave work at work is to answer one
fundamental question: Why are you trying to leave work at work? By this I mean leaving work at work in the figurative sense—not being mentally consumed by work once you’ve stopped doing it. Presumably there is something negative caused by spending too much time thinking about work.
However, in an ideal situation, you would love your work and not feel the need to leave it at work because it is perceived as enjoyable wherever you are, and does not come at the cost of something else better you could be doing. But in reality, even if you love your work, there may be many reasons why there are negative consequences to working too much or not establishing firm boundaries on your work. Below, I have delineated three kinds of “mental chatter” that keep people from disengaging mentally from work, and provide some methods to address them.
“The Worrier Mentality”
The worrier mentality is characterized by excessive preoccupation about negative aspects of work, which is hard to stop even at home. If this is the case, you might be worried about a social aspect of your job (overly demanding boss or annoying coworkers), some aspect of your work that you’ve been putting off because it’s stressful or difficult, or the emotional burden associated with your job, whether it’s related to some specific aspect of your work or whatever is at
stake if things were to go wrong.
As a psychologist, people will often ask me if it’s hard to not bring home the emotional aspects of my job. There are definitely times when this is challenging. In these cases, I try to remind myself that my empathy for my patients is a very good thing, but becoming too emotionally invested will cost me my objectivity and the patient less optimal treatment.
If you sometimes struggle with the worrier mentality, this might be a symptom of a larger problem that you haven’t been able to solve. What steps could you take understand the problem and fix it? This might involve having a meeting with your boss, or talking to your coworkers about how you feel. It might involve changing project teams at work, or delegating some aspect of your work to someone else.
“The Guilt Mentality”.
The guilt mentality is defined by feelings of guilt specifically about not working more. This may apply regardless of whether your work is pleasant or unpleasant. You might be suffering from the guilt mentality if you have thoughts that linger into the night associated with “shoulds” or “should haves”, or if you find it hard to enjoy other activities because work is looming over
you in some way.
You may subscribe to the work martyr mindset, which I have written about before, or believe that working more equals working better. This is also a mindset that I will sometimes fall into when it comes to my research because I could always be reading more, writing more, or conducting more experiments.
The solution to this kind of thinking is to challenge whether the standards you have set for yourself in work and at home are even achievable, as over-ambitious goals that are never met may only lead to disappointment and a lack of self-efficacy. Another solution that has
worked well for me is to practice being more in the moment when engaged in non-work activities in order to fully reap those benefits. If I’m not going to do any work during that time, I might as well enjoy it!
“The Workaholic Mentality”.
The workaholic mentality is characterized by a persistent obsession with your work, which causes you to have trouble finding time for other things in your life that also matter to you. Whereas the guilt mindset is aware of wanting to spend more time on other things, the workaholic mindset is not. In fact, you may not even believe you need to leave work at work because you love doing it so much!
You may be falling into the workaholic mentality if you frequently have trouble saying no to new opportunities, accommodate your interests to serve your work, or have a schedule which includes limited down time. I will also sometimes fall into this trap because I truly love many aspects of my job and could sometimes sit at my desk for hours if I didn’t have to eat or use the bathroom!
However, it is helpful to remind yourself of your core values, plan activities that align with those values, and organize your week so that the time spent on other activities are proportional to the
importance of those values.
By Angela Fang, Ph.D. - Expert Psychologist