Leaving work at work : a guide for Healthcare Staff with stressful roles.
Updated: Sep 7, 2022
The art of being present, when you want to be.
One of the challenges I hear about the most in our work with NHS staff relates to boundary keeping between work and life, both in terms of physical hours at work and the ability to leave work at work.
This is true for all high pressure work, but increasingly so when that work includes facing and supporting the distress in others, or worse - dealing with loss and crisis as a regular experience. These crisis experiences are not limited to clinicians only. I regularly support admin and management staff who support clinical teams and patients - facing upset and often angry patients, supporting exhausted clinicians and trying to stretch limited resource to meed expanding demand.
All of this has been said in many places, so I won't over indulge here.
Here, I want to offer some psychological strategies that help NHS staff to leave work at work and to be present in their lives at home - something we all so desperately want and need.
5 Strategies for being present
1. Decompression Practice
Learning to drop work and work related pressure can be developed as a routine. I've created a video on this which is used to support NHS staff under pressure in the nonprofit Project5 (which I also lead). We've heard that it helps, so here it is:
2. Dress for the role you want, not the role you have
It can be helpful to dress for your day at home (for example Christmas day- obligatory Christmas jumper!). When we head out for a party or a meal, we often dress for the occasion and make ourselves up. This is a learned strategy and can be assumed to be a potential signal to us that we are entering into a space that will be pleasant and rewarding. Take a similar approach on days you are at home - arrive dressed (up or down) for the occasion and invite the role and experience that comes with this attire.
3. Log your worries
Create a worry log, a simple piece of paper where you write down any concern, ruminating thought, emotion that pops up in the day. Promise yourself you will review this once you are back at work. Return to it every time you need to. This approach can enable you to let go of perceived work-related threats, as you have created a place for them to be remembered and promised yourself you will get back to it.
We often cycle perceived threats in our mind as a protective measure - forgetting them feels like a threat in and of itself. If we put them to paper, as a future reminder, we can reduce this added threat for the immediate moment.
4. Gift yourself a worry slot
Your work experience may include lots of firefighting and crisis resolution. It can be very hard to drop this mode of thought. It can be helpful to gift yourself a short 20 minute slot in the morning (another in the afternoon if you feel the need, plus one in the evening) to listen to your experiences. Using a method called freefall writing can help. Take a piece of paper and simply write for 5-20 minutes whatever comes to your mind. Don't analyse it, just let it out. Then read it over and put it away.
For those of you with trauma in your roles, it does not help to push it back and it can help to let it out in a contained fashion such as this.
5. Be self-compassionate
Accept that it is difficult to be present and notice the moments you are, even if these are brief. Realise that you are a wonderful person and that you try your best. If you become tense, distracted or thinking about work - kindly invite yourself to do one of the above and forgive yourself for how hard it is in reality. Recognise that this is common for others like you and that being sympathetic and compassionate to yourself is the best gift you need.
Accept what emotions emerge and feel no shame or regret in what arrives when you turn up for yourself. Enjoy what you can. It is not a battle with yourself, rather an invitation to be here in the now as best you can.