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Subduing the Sunday scaries: 

6 ways staff and leaders can conquer returning-to-work anxiety after a weekend or holiday 

Most working-age people can relate to the mounting sense of anxiety that sets in at around 3pm on Sunday.

As the final hours of your weekend slip away, your mind starts to wander. You fret over emails, next week’s meetings and the urgent project you vowed to start on Monday morning. It may be comforting to know you’re not alone.

This phenomenon is commonly known as the ‘Sunday scaries’. Whether you’re returning to work after a standard weekend or a long, leisurely holiday, the Sunday scaries have been part of life since time immemorial.

What causes the Sunday scaries? Fortunately, leadership and management experts from The University of Queensland (UQ) Business School have actionable insights to keep returning to work anxiety at bay. Read on for their analysis of what causes the Sunday scaries and their tips for affected employees and team leaders.

What causes the Sunday scaries?

UQ Business School management lecturer Dr Marissa Edwards says many different factors can spark feelings of fear and apprehension before the working week begins.

“While there’s little scholarly research into the phenomenon, plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests heavy workloads and time pressures are some of the major contributing issues,” she says.

“We also live in a world where we’re constantly connected to our organisations through technology. This lifestyle can contribute to the perception that we need to be working around the clock.”

UQ Business School management and leadership expert Dr Adam Kay believes there are distinct drivers that instigate the Sunday scaries:

Falling victim to hardwired instincts

Adam says evolution has primed the human mind to scan the environment for present and future threats.  

“When your mind perceives future threats, it tends to exaggerate them. Doing so is evolutionarily advantageous,” he says.

“For example, you’re likely to survive the week ahead if you perceive a tiger coming your way, but the tiger ends up being a kitten. By contrast, you’re less likely to survive the week if you perceive a kitten coming your way, but the kitten ends up being a tiger.

“When people experience the Sunday scaries, chances are their mind is tricking them into seeing a tiger, even if it’s just a kitten.”

Not having a plan for the week ahead

Great news for type-A personalities who live by their desktop planners and Outlook calendars: this is when keeping your calendar up to date comes in handy.

“Anyone who can’t clearly see how their week ahead will unfold will see more potential for threat,” Adam says.How do the Sunday scaries negatively affect individuals and organisations?

Catastrophising and lack of preparation

Sometimes, people can plainly see a legitimate threat coming their way, such as an important presentation or strict deadline.  

“In such cases, the Sunday scaries may be further driven by catastrophising – exaggerating the likelihood or negative implications of things going badly – or lack of preparation,” Adam says.

“These two drivers can also fuel one another. Lack of preparation can lead to catastrophising, while catastrophising can lead to procrastination and poor preparation.”

How do the Sunday scaries negatively affect individuals and organisations?

Regardless of the cause, both experts agree that the Sunday scaries can have personal and professional repercussions for employees, leaders and their organisations.

On a personal level, Marissa says around 25 per cent of people report difficulty sleeping on Sunday nights because they’re worried about the week ahead.

“Occasional work-related anxiety is fairly common,” she says.

“It’s also normal to feel anxiety in certain situations, such as an important performance appraisal. But if people experience significant and frequent anxiety that affects how they function on a daily basis, it can become problematic.

“In some cases, people may meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder or display signs of burnout. Clinically significant anxiety is associated with a range of symptoms such as fatigue, insomnia, muscle tension, difficulty concentrating, irritability and restlessness.

“These symptoms can affect productivity, satisfaction and engagement at work and lead to extended periods of absenteeism and employee turnover.”

Marissa says individuals should carefully assess the impact of the Sunday scaries on their wellbeing.

How do the Sunday scaries negatively affect individuals and organisations?“If they’re truly dreading work or the anxiety is spreading to the other days of the week, they should consider taking steps to address it with the help of a professional,” she says.

Left unchecked, the Sunday scaries can wreak as much havoc on an organisation as they can on an individual’s mental health.

“In some cases, anxiety can spread through the workplace through a process called emotional contagion,” Adam says.

“This process is more likely to occur when the person experiencing anxiety is in a leadership position. When anxiety spreads to others at work, the negative outcomes of anxiety also spread.”

Adam says these negative outcomes include less collaboration among employees to find ‘win-win solutions’, reduced willingness to voice opinions to others, and poor conflict management.

Marissa’s personal tips for coping with the Sunday scaries

1. Acknowledge your feelings

“It’s important to understand why you’re feeling apprehensive about starting the working week,” Marissa says.

“Is it because of a difficult colleague, your workload, or because you’re struggling to manage family responsibilities and feeling overwhelmed? Once you know the source of the anxiety, you can address it.”

Dr Marissa Edwards
Dr Marissa Edwards

2. Draft an action plan

“In my experience, it helps to ensure that I’m prepared for the coming week. I like making plans and lists so that I feel organised and in control of the situation,” Marissa says.

She adds that organising your calendar or diary on Friday afternoon to avoid being overwhelmed on Monday morning can dispel some of the apprehension. 

3. Take time for self-care

Marissa is a firm believer in finding ways to disengage from work and enjoy downtime, especially on weekends. She spends her Sunday nights on activities that help her relax and escape thoughts of work.

“This means spending time with my partner, applying a face mask and watching shows on Netflix!” she says.

“Making sure I get enough sleep and frequent exercise also improves my mood.

“One of my colleagues has found that allowing herself something to look forward to each Monday morning – such as a cup of coffee from her favourite café or scheduling time for yoga before work – can make the transition from the weekend easier. “

Adam’s tips for leaders to help team members overcome the Sunday scaries

1. Introduce flexible workplace policies

Avoiding burnout, increased absenteeism and employee turnover is high on the agenda for any leader worth their salt – and helping employees manage their ‘Sunday scaries’ is often a vital piece of the puzzle.

In 2020, Australian software company Atlassian introduced its TEAM Anywhere policy. TEAM Anywhere allows employees to take control over where they live and work, helping them balance competing priorities such as family life, health issues and career goals.

Dr Adam Kay
Dr Adam Kay

“Flexible policies that promote work-life balance – such as giving employees the ability to work from home or even dial in from overseas – can go a long way towards managing post-weekend or holiday anxiety,” Adam says.

“If your employee doesn’t have to worry about their commute the next morning or about having enough time to spend with family and friends, their Sunday scaries may disappear.”

2. Establish Monday morning check-ins

Adam is a strong advocate of proactive and mindful leadership. He suggests that leaders check in with their team members first thing on Monday morning, either individually or in a team meeting setting.

“Leaders can assess their team’s anxiety about the week ahead and, depending on their assessment, take appropriate measures to help them alleviate it,” Adam says.

“To manage anxiety, leaders would also do well to start their Monday morning check-ins with a brief mindfulness exercise, which can be done in as little as 1-2 minutes.”

3. Offer support and express confidence

For many employees, being on the receiving end of a helping hand or a compliment from a colleague – especially their leader – can make a big difference, Adam says.

“This is especially true for those who engage in catastrophising or otherwise feel unprepared for a perceived threat in the week ahead,” he says.

“Beyond reducing anxiety, leaders who make a point of offering support and expressing confidence in their people are more likely to earn the loyalty and dedication of their team.”

The Sunday scaries can be debilitating – but they don’t have to be. Take back your weekends and improve team culture and performance by implementing these tips and tricks.

Become a more self-aware leader with UQ’s MBA program. 

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