The thought of returning to work after a summer holiday and switching off the ‘out of office’ message (that you waited so long to switch on) can often provoke an amped up version of the Sunday scaries. And for those living with gut issues, this end of holiday anxiety can make gut discomforts worse. So what can we do if we find ourselves feeling this way?
Why It’s Natural to Feel This Way
First, know you’re not alone - it’s natural to feel unsettled about a return to work when you’ve had a break. The brain gets used to a new normal very quickly (hi vacation mode!), and the fun and freedoms we experience on holiday can feel like they evaporate all too quickly once we return home.
The ‘scaries’ tend to creep up on us in the final days of a break - we might start thinking about what awaits us when we return - things like piles of unread emails or tasks that have been assigned to us, or a project we aren’t looking forward to. This is particularly relevant if we were dealing with a heavy or hectic workload before we left. When we contrast this to the fun and enjoyment we’ve had on holiday it’s no surprise that anxiety ensues.
Understanding the ‘why’ won’t necessarily ease the dread (although it’s useful to remember that these feelings are temporary), but there are things you can do to make the adjustment back to work a little easier on yourself and your gut.
Give Yourself Time
If you can, give yourself time to ease back into work. On the day you return, avoid booking meetings, set aside a block of uninterrupted time (perhaps the morning) to catch up on your email, and make a plan prioritising the most urgent tasks.
Take regular breaks throughout the day - set an alarm every hour or so then take a stretch, do a breathing exercise, get a drink and have time away from your screen - and plan something nice to do after you finish work.
Embrace A New Routine
Getting back into a routine when returning to work can also be incredibly helpful because it helps to reduce stress and lessens decision making. Routine is also incredibly soothing - a sort of antidote to anxiety. That’s because it brings a sense of predictability, and as a result can help us feel calmer.
Try picking 3-4 activities that you can do on a daily or weekly basis and implement these as you start back at work. Ideas include;
- preparing your lunches for the week
- laying out the clothes you’re going to wear the next day the night before
- planning in some exercise - book a yoga class or schedule a jog or a walk after work
- Set your alarm 15 minutes early to do a stretch or have time for a nourishing breakfast
- prioritise early nights and turn off your phone and tv an hour before bed to help you unwind or try these tips for a better night’s sleep
Planning something to look forward to at the end of your first week back at work can also help give you a lift. Try something that promotes rest or connection, for example a massage, coffee with a friend, a yoga class or movie night.
Coping With Work When You Have Gut Issues
If you’re affected by gut issues then an angst-ridden return to work after a summer break can be even more challenging, because symptoms often flare alongside stress or anxiety.
Research shows that around £3 billion is lost every year through sick days related to gut health, and a survey by the IBS network found that only 10 percent of respondents felt their employer was understanding about them having a gut health condition.
If this sounds familiar, sit down with a notepad and have a think about what would help you to work more comfortably. Perhaps more flexibility to work from home when you're experiencing a flare up, better access to toilets, or a change in your workload that may relieve some pressure.
Once you’ve got your list, book a meeting to speak with your employer or line manager. This may not sound appealing (especially if you’re not confident in their support), but it’s really important that you communicate your needs. Try to remember that your employer has a responsibility to do what they can to support your health and wellbeing. If you need some back up, you can ask your doctor for a letter detailing your gut condition and how it impacts your daily life.
If your symptoms are aggravated by stress (as they often can be), consider trying a mindfulness programme - studies show that regular mindfulness practice can help us manage stressful situations, and regulate our feelings and emotions with awareness. There’s also evidence that mindfulness can improve gut symptom severity and related anxiety.
Looking After Your Mental Health at Work Long Term
Longer term, taking positive action to support your mental health can help to reduce stress and avoid burnout - a state of physical and emotional exhaustion which can happen when our work life balance is continually tipped towards work, or if you’ve been experiencing high stress levels for a long time.
According to Doctors Amelia and Emily Nagoski (authors of Burnout: The secret to solving the stress cycle) doing something to release stress at the end of a busy day (and letting our bodies know that we are safe and can relax) is key in avoiding burnout.
Here are 6 strategies they suggest - try one the next time you are experiencing a stressful day. If your first thought is ‘but I just don’t have time’, remind yourself that you can’t give your all (in work, family life or home) if your tank is empty, and your health is important. Sooner or later a lack of rest and downtime will catch up with you.
- Move - exercise helps to dissipate stress hormones. It doesn’t have to be formal - dance round the living room, take a brisk walk around the block or take yourself for a ten minute jog.
- Deep breathing Slow deep breathing helps to move the body from fight or flight to rest and digest.
- Chat Connecting with people helps us feel safe. Pick up the phone to a friend or have a cuppa and with your partner once you're home
- Get a hug A cuddle with someone we trust helps us feel safe and releases the feel good hormone oxytocin
- Cry Crying can be incredibly cathartic, allowing us to feel and release emotion from the body, so if you need to cry, let the tears flow.
- Get creative Painting, knitting, cooking, get involved in any activity that allows you to express yourself
Lastly, if you are feeling completely exhausted in mind and body, or if the feeling of dread around work doesn’t ease up, talk to your G.P. about what support is available. In England, you can also self refer for psychological therapy without seeing your G.P. Find out more here.
Naliboff, B. D., Smith, S. R., Serpa, J. G., Laird, K. T., Stains, J., Connolly, L. S., Labus, J. S., & Tillisch, K. (2020). Mindfulness-based stress reduction improves irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms via specific aspects of mindfulness. Neurogastroenterology and motility : the official journal of the European Gastrointestinal Motility Society, 32(9), e13828. https://doi.org/10.1111/nmo.13828