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Had a Bad Day at Work? Here's What to Do

by Andrea Klausner, MS, RD  

Rather than dwell on an unpleasant day at work and lose sleep, take a mental break after quitting hours to separate yourself from the experience, suggests a study in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology in April 2018, which looked at the effects of “workplace incivility” on employee sleep and how psychological detachment may im­­prove well-being.

It’s not uncommon to feel like you’ve been treated rudely at work, at least on occasion—whether by coworkers, supervisors, or customers, for instance. Some workers may even feel bullied. But being preoccupied with negative work experiences and unable to stop thinking about them (called “rumination” in the study) is not helpful. On the contrary, it typically increases stress levels, and if it becomes chronic it can lead to burnout, family conflicts, decreased life satisfaction, and physical ailments.

The study involved 699 U.S. Forest Service employees, who were surveyed about how often they felt they were subjected to workplace incivility over the past six months, how much they ruminated over it or distanced themselves from it, and how much they relaxed during their free evenings.

Not surprisingly, experiencing incivility at work was associated with rumination and insomnia. But the employees who engaged in high levels of “recovery experiences” outside working hours—namely psychological detachment from work and relaxation—were better able to “halt the negative spillover from work to the nonwork domain,” as the authors put it, and were least likely to have insomnia. This remained true even after the researchers controlled for other factors that can adversely affect sleep, including the number of children at home, number of hours worked weekly, and alcohol use.

Regarding the cycle of bad work days leading to rumination and thus sleep problems, the authors concluded that “those who can detach themselves mentally from this cycle fare better, that is, do not suffer as much sleep disruption as those who are less capable of detachment.“

Workplaces can do their part to promote civility by raising awareness of the issue, conducting training sessions, and modeling good behaviors. But employees can also build resilience skills and make more effort to detach. Some good “recovery experiences” include exercising, meditating, taking a walk, reading a book, listening to music, volunteering—or doing whatever you find fun, distracting, and relaxing.

This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.

Also see Are "Green" Workplaces Better?