After work anxiety: why we get stressed when we get home

Sometimes work is so busy we don’t even have time to be anxious. Then on your commute home, or on the family room couch at 8 p.m., stress hits like bricks. Without intending to, you’ve brought work home with you. It’s sitting next to you, staring at you, and it feels like there’s nothing you can do.

In turn, people with high levels of work stress have poorer mental health than those with lower levels. Four years of chronic high stress can lead to a seven percent decrease in mental health compared to those who experienced no stress. Stress also makes people angrier, sicker and more likely to be in unhappy marriages.

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Of course, after-work anxiety is so common that it is, to a degree, inevitable. But there are some things that make it worse than it needs to be. Here are three:

Unhealthy work-life balance

There’s a misconception about work-life balance. Some think of it as an hours-worked equation. For example, one employee at Challenge Manufacturing Company Pontiac described an unhealthy work-life balance as “90% Work + 10% Home Life”. Through this lens, work-life balance is a calculation based on how much time one spends on work compared to life.

The problem is feeling balanced between work and life has very little to do with time spent on either. Unless you literally have no time for life (“Get up and go to work, go home, sleep and get up and go to work,” as one Mattress Firm employee put it in a kununu review) most full-time workers spend significantly more time on work than on waking life. And many are happy and minimally stressed doing so.

Rather, work and life feel unbalanced if all your mental and emotional resources are going to work and you have none left over for life. “After work, I’m always tired,” explained one Wal-Mart employee. One Target employee said in a review that they were “constantly stressed and dreading my next shift, even while at home.” These kinds of mental burdens—not simply time spent at work—derail work-life balance. Put another way, work-life balance isn’t equal work time to equal life time. It’s being mentally and emotionally able to savor the life time you do have.

Fortunately, even if we can’t dictate the number of hours we work, we have control over feeling balanced. Research shows that an end-of-workday positive reflection can decrease stress and improve health in the evening. Adopt a daily ritual, like taking a few deep breaths, practicing mindfulness on your way home from work, or working out, to add space and separate work from life.

Career misgivings

Another reason for after-work anxiety is existential career stress: Am I in the right job? The right profession? What if I’m not making the most of my potential? What am I doing here? Sometimes we feel the stress of these questions more acutely when we’re not in the office and have more time to ruminate.

Consider the source of your misgivings. Maybe it’s a boss you don’t jive with, or a field you’re not enamored by. Remember that anxiety evolved to help us make good decisions. What could your anxiety be telling you about your next career step? If you dread going back to work on Mondays and count down the hours until you can clock out, maybe you’re in the wrong position. All careers are hard, and we all go through hot and cool spells. But if you’ve felt anxiety after work for more than six months and you sense it has to do with work, it could be worth looking into other options either within the company or outside it. Some research even shows that job mobility improves mental health.

Regardless of your career decisions, labeling what’s going on can alleviate your anxiety. If you can’t discover the root of it, cognitive behavioral therapy could help. Research shows that it helps anxious workers reduce absenteeism and make important career decisions.

Inadequate outside-of-work outlets

You may have inadequate outside-of-work outlets if you can’t quite put your finger on the cause of your anxiety, don’t want to do anything after work, and end up watching a lot of TV. Having, as one Angmar Medical Holdings Inc. employee review put it, “No life after work,” may explain why you feel anxious. Common coping mechanisms like holing up, binge eating and watching TV only exacerbate anxiety.

For some people, work is an adequate creative, intellectual and social outlet. For many, however, we need outside activities to supplement needs not met at work. If you like your job but still feel anxious after work, consider what you still need. Maybe it’s social interaction and community. Maybe it’s physical exertion, or creativity. Maybe it’s romantic love. One outlet we desperately need but often lack is adequate sleep. In short, find ways to facilitate an outlet that meets your needs outside of work.

If you’re job hunting, look for companies that value after-work activities and supplemental passions. “Good thing is you rarely worked past 5. Everyone had things to do after work,” writes one Displays By Jack employee. Reviews like this can give you a sense for whether after-work outlets will be feasible at a potential company.

If you think an anxiety-free after-work existence is mere fantasy, consider this review from an employee at Vendini:  “The employees absolutely rock. There is a real sense of community between coworkers. Everyone seems to have a real-life and hobbies outside of work. People here are smart, talented, driven, but also know when its time to go home and relax. When you’re not at the office, you’re not working. I’ve never lost sleep or gotten anxious thinking about work the next day.” It’s something to work toward.

This article first appeared on Kununu