It isn’t called a sinking feeling for nothing. It feels like you’re in a lift, plummeting down the outside of a skyscraper, out of control, hurtling towards the inevitable. Your stomach is like a washing machine on fast spin, and the dread, deep in your soul, is playing havoc with your digestion.
I am talking about the Sunday night feeling many of us had when returning to school after the holidays or the weekend. The post holiday feeling after a couple of weeks not wearing shoes, getting up when we like, eating what we want, knowing we have to go back to the workplace, and can’t stop for coffee when we feel like it. Only worse. Because today is the day that millions of people return to the office, the clinical environment, to work after a year of shielding, sheltering, working from home.
Even if we are not among that number, how many of us get the Sunday evening dread as we approach a run of nights, a particularly heavy part of the rota, or a difficult time at work?
I used to get this feeling before I flew off to America for a weekend conference. Friends thought I was lucky to travel for work; how glamorous, they said, and there was an element of excitement mixed in with my trepidation, but there was also a great deal of dread. Physically it was demanding, emotionally it could be a roller coaster ride, and I missed my family, hated being 3,000 miles away from them, worried that something would happen when I was away. Work trips are rarely as glamorous as people think – spending hours inside a metal tube with strangers, then days inside windowless conference suites, nights making polite conversations with colleagues; no wonder I found it gave me the jitters for about a week before I went.
One of the worst times for me was when my daughter was only five. A boy in her year had contracted meningitis, I had found her first lot of hair lice and it was January. Cold, miserable. I wanted to keep my baby at home and protect her from the outside world. But I had to go to Birmingham for 48 hours. Arriving in the cess pit of a hotel I had booked, on what looked like a waste ground, to a room with a window that didn’t close and bedsheets with holes in them, I sat down and cried. Not very glamorous at all.
So, what we can do to help ourselves with that Sunday night feeling, especially for those who are nervous about returning to work, and with every reason?
Just as pilots and surgeons have checklists before high-risk events, so I developed my own version to use before a work trip. I recognised that the stress could be lessened somewhat if the practicalities, and some of the emotionally challenging elements were managed. I divided my preparations into practical, relational, physical and emotional. Not all of these will be relevant to you, but I hope that some will help to prepare you to deal with the dread.
Whether you are flying off to the other side of the globe or facing a set of night shifts, it is really helpful to talk with your loved ones first. If you live with other people, or you have close friends and family with whom you interact regularly, it can make a difference to prepare them for the days (and nights) you aren’t around. Ask partners to take over certain roles, and if necessary, write them a list. Explain to children – or others, that you are going to be away or will be very busy and tired and that you need to focus for the next few days on work and sleep. I used to remind my daughter of trips we had planned together when she would have my total attention and say in order to make those trips, we had to work hard during this time when we would not be together. It can help to agree a small treat for when the work period is over – a take away meal, a film to watch, a picnic. Setting expectations in this way can help everyone to be prepared and therefore not to feel upset or aggrieved if you are not available.
Practically I have a small notebook with all the essentials listed that I take away with me – work materials, toiletries, medications, passport and currency, and an outline of the clothes I will need – travel clothes, pyjamas, underwear. Cutting down on the stresses of making small decisions while in the intense phase can help free us up to deal with the work. Similarly, I used to make a note of travel timings in my diary – with lots of extra ‘just in case’ time as a buffer. Getting to the airport via 3 trains required an additional 45 minutes added to the 3 hours travelling time in case a connection was missed. Getting up at 5.15 every day I worked in London required military precision the night before. Everything was laid out. I always carried a big bag in which I had everything I could possibly need for the day or the trip: Snacks; water; electronic chargers; painkillers; plasters; travel documentation; programmes downloaded on my iPad for long journeys (I can fly to most European capitals quicker than I can get from southern to norther England).
Physical preparation is key too – before a set of nights, making sure we have additional sleep to top up the battery, and perhaps eat some extra nutritious food, drink less alcohol, and ensuring we get some fresh air and relaxation, can make a difference. We now know that many people are vitamin D deficient in the winter, and indeed many of us can become anaemic too. Fortifying our diets with supplements can make a difference to how we cope with the stresses life presents. I learned to leave my diary free the day before a trip, even if it was only in the UK. Packing, with my notebook, was an easy task but other preparations can be time consuming, and having an opportunity for a relaxing day before a set of busy ones is useful. Similarly, I would leave a gap on my return, to ensure I could recover from the late nights and long days.
And finally, emotional preparation can help. I developed all sorts of ways of coping with my international trips. Firstly, I spoiled myself. I would buy something new to wear or to read to take along with me, so that I had something to look forward to. I made sure my most comforting music was on my iPad, and I had two sets of ear buds with me. I would see a friend for coffee beforehand, and have extra cuddles with my daughter. When she was little, she did miss me and we bought a beautiful notebook in which I would leave her messages and drawings. She could write anything in there she wanted to say to me while I was away. I also left her little notes around the house, or put a postcard in the letterbox so she would receive it the next day. That way I knew that she knew I was still thinking of her.
I appreciate that much of this preparation is tailored towards working away, but when we do lates and night shifts, it can feel like we are not as available to our loved ones, as though we are away. Shift working is tough on us and it is tough on our families too. But with a little preparation, and some care, we can minimise the adverse impacts. To all those returning to work, whether after a year off or just the long weekend, and to all those who experience that Sunday night feeling at some time, you are not alone.
Wishing everyone a safe, and stress-free return to work. And for those who were working over the weekend – we hope you have some time off very soon.