Dread Returning To Work After Time Off? Here’s What That Means

Dread Returning To Work After Time Off? Here's What That Means

By Rebecca Fraser-Thill

We accrue time off from work proudly and use it thoughtfully. No wonder we feel wistful when our well-guarded break comes to an end, whether it was for vacation, a holiday, or personal leave.

At times, though, minor sadness feels more like intense dread and we find ourselves questioning whether our work is the problem.

Here are seven questions to ask yourself to help determine whether your transition woes are typical – or might instead signal the need for a career change:

1. How Long Was Your Break?

The longer our time off work, the more normal it is to feel upset about returning. All humans experience the most comfort with what’s known, and a routine of being away from work becomes our “normal” – even if we had to take the time for an unpleasant reason like an illness or loss. Therefore, feeling nervous and discontent about returning work after a break of two weeks or more is not necessarily concerning; it’s more likely human nature.

When breaks that are a week or less come to an end, however, outright dread may indicate that you genuinely need more time off, especially if you’re also showing signs of burnout.

2. How Often Do You Dread Returning To Work? 

If feelings of dread happen once or twice a year – after your summer vacation and the prolonged winter holidays, for instance – that’s not alarming. We all need breaks and can feel unsettled when they end.

But if you feel dread as each and every weekend comes to a close, that’s cause for concern. A weekend should feel like a refreshing change of pace, not like an all-out escape from a horrible alternative.

3. How Long Did It Take To Stop Thinking About Work During The Break? 

Counterintuitively, one of the most telling signs of work stress is how long it takes to decompress once we’re on break.

Many of us need a day or two to unwind from the pace of work, regardless of the quality of our job. But if you spend the majority of break rehashing work encounters and concerns mentally and/or while talking to others, or you find it impossible to tear yourself away from email because work’s always on your mind, it may be time to take notice.

4. When Do You Start Feeling Unhappy?

Feeling wistful on the last day or two of vacation is typical. Anticipating your return to work days (or weeks!) before you’ve departed your hotel is not.

When my husband began to burn out from teaching public school, he showed signs of dread on Sunday evenings, becoming bitter, angry and on edge as the sun faded away. By the time he chose to leave the profession, his dread was appearing before Saturday even came to a close. In other words, he was spending more of his weekend unhappy about the work week ahead than enjoying the weekend itself. That’s not okay.

5. What Is The Source of Your Dread?

There are two different major categories of work issues that can cause us to not want to be there:

  1. Something positive is missing from your work. Your work is “not enough” in some sense, such as not challenging, meaningful, or purposeful enough.
  2. There’s too much of something negative in your work. You don’t want to return because there’s something upsetting or even toxic present, such as conflict, pressure, or ethical issues.

In the first scenario, it’s fully possible to job craft within your existing role to make the job a better fit. If it’s the second scenario, a change of workplace may be the only way to create significant change – but your role and industry might be just fine.

If you’re dreading work for both reasons, exploring a genuine career change may be in order.

6. How Much Less Meaningful Is Work Compared To Your Time Off?

Sometimes we dread returning to work simply because, relatively speaking, it’s so much less engaging than our lives. That’s totally normal, even for those of us with highly purposeful jobs, according to research conducted by Pew Research Center. Most of us find time with family particularly meaningful, with work running far behind.

Therefore, noticing a discrepancy in meaning between home life and work life isn’t cause for concern. It’s actually a healthy sign; work isn’t meant to be our end-all.

If the discrepancy is huge, however, or our work is devoid of meaning, we could consider how to tweak our existing job to up the meaning quotient.

7. How Long Does The Adjustment To Work Take? 

Once you’re back in the saddle at work, pay attention to how long it takes to leave the negative feelings behind. The adjustment is likely to take a while after breaks for big life changes, like marriage, births and deaths. I felt sad and overwhelmed for weeks after returning from maternity leave even though I loved my teaching job, but gradually I settled back in, as most of us do when our work is a good fit.

If instead you’re feeling more negative than positive feelings for the majority of the week on most weeks and that feeling is persistent, it’s time to do some digging.

Final Thoughts

Be sure to take note of whether your feelings of dread are confined to work or are across all facets of life. The latter may indicate a mental health need and a call to your PCP could be in order.

Also note that any one of these signs isn’t necessarily cause for concern. We all occasionally feel less engaged by our work than at other times. Seeing a combination of signs – such as, spending your entire vacation dreading work and weeks after your return trying to get over your angst about being there – may mean it’s time to call a career coach or counselor. These individuals can help you formulate positive next steps for crafting your existing job or moving into a new career, and can hold you accountable during the process. That way your next return from break will be accompanied by normative wistfulness – “good bye beloved break!” – instead of full-on dread.

Rebecca is a certified career coach and runs a career coaching practice that helps clients make the most of their work lives.

This article first appeared on the Forbes website.

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