Raise your hand if you sometimes get up on the wrong side of the bed and dread the entire workday ahead of you. I thought so. Even if you’re working from home, some days can be hard just getting out of your warm, cozy bed after a long weekend or a late night, especially when it’s cold, gray and rainy.
The “Start-of-Workday” Blues
Studies show that “start-of-workday” moods stay with you all day long and affect job performance and productivity. The more you focus on dread, the more it grows — nibbling away at you like torture from half a million cuts. Neuroscientists say this is based on the mind-body connection. The cells of your body constantly eavesdrop on your thoughts from the wings of your mind. When you have negative thoughts, your cells dump a biochemical cocktail creating dread. If you start the day with dread, it can create depression or anxiety of getting through more demands and deadlines.
A study by Nancy Rothbard and Steffanie Wilk observed a group of customer service representatives (CSRs) in an insurance company’s call center over several weeks. They sent CSRs periodic short surveys throughout the day, assessing their mood as they started the day, how they viewed work events such as customer interactions throughout the day and their mood during the day after those customer interactions. The duo used the company’s detailed performance metrics to investigate how employee mood at work related to their performance.
They found that CSRs varied from day to day in their start-of-day mood, but that those who started out each day happy or calm usually stayed that way throughout the day, and interacting with customers tended to further enhance their mood. On the other hand, employees who started the day in a terrible mood didn’t really climb out of it, and felt even worse by the end of the day — even after interacting with positive customers. The researchers also discovered something they called, “the misery loves company” syndrome. Some CSRs who felt badly at the beginning of the day felt less badly after interacting with customers who were in bad moods. The researchers interpret that finding to mean that when confronted with a customer’s perspective, CSRs felt their own lives weren’t so bad after all.
10 Steps to Sidestep Start-of-Workday Blues
When you broaden your perspective and consider possibilities, you can sidestep what psychologists call a negative “start-of-workday” mood and begin and end on an upswing. There are 10 mindful tips that can help you widen your perspective from the narrow mental lens that creates dread:
1. Avoid Deep Diving. If you go swimming for the first time, you don’t dive in over your head on the first day. You wade in the shallow water to get acclimated to ease your mind. After a late night, weekend or vacation, get in the habit of making your first day back your shallow water day instead of deep dive day. Avoid over-scheduling yourself with huge challenges or adding additional responsibilities to your calendar. Tackle as many of the unfinished tasks the previous week so your dread won’t feel so insurmountable. Sometimes the blues come from thinking about everything on your to-do list. Taking one step at a time prevents you from overwhelming yourself. Focus on the most important task, put the rest out of your mind and complete the one that needs immediate attention.
2. Make Your “Start-of-Workday” Adventure Days. There’s a thin line between excitement and dread (think bungee jumping). Instead of considering the day filled with expectations of problems to solve, turn that around and think of them as adventures. Expectations are premeditated resentments. When you frame work challenges as curious adventures (“I wonder if I will land that account”) instead of expectations (“If I don’t land that account, I’ll be upset”), it reduces dread because you’re not trying to solve a problem. It frees you from a premeditated mindset if your expectations aren’t met and lets you roll with nature taking its course. You could even ask yourself, “I wonder what interesting events will happen this today.”
3. Avoid “Stinkin’ Thinkin’.” Mother Nature designed your mind to overestimate threats and underestimate your ability to overcome them so you can survive. Neuroscientists call this the “negativity bias.” It takes three positive thoughts to offset one negative thought. Positive thoughts work in the opposite direction, helping you stack your start-of-the-workday positivity deck. Look for the upside of a downside situation. Avoid blowing disappointments out of proportion. Look for gains in your losses. Focus on solutions instead of problems. And pinpoint opportunity in a challenge. Think of one thing — no matter how insignificant it might seem at first — to look forward to at the start of the day. It could be chatting with a favorite team member, helping a client you enjoy, the excitement of presenting a new idea to your manager or having lunch at your favorite restaurant. Plan to reward yourself at the end of the day with something fun.
4. Sidestep “Must” and Embrace Your Choices. Usually the start-of-the-workday blues hit because of your perspective. If you’re like most people, you have a relentless faultfinder living in your brain, ruling your mind. It bludgeons you with oppressive words that pressure you such as must, should, ought and have to: “I must win that contract; “I have to get that promotion”; “This project should be perfect.” When you’re aware of the oppressive voice (the psychologist Albert Ellis dubbed it “musturbation”), you can choose more empowering, less stressful words such as “I plan to,” “I want to” or “I choose to.” Empowering self-talk eclipses the dread and lifts your mood. Remind yourself that you’re not a victim of your job. Mentally trace the choices you’ve made in your career. You chose the position you’re in, and you chose to work Monday through Friday. As you name all the other aspects about the job that you’ve chosen, you start to feel lighter, freer and more empowered over the oppressive thoughts.
5. Self-Soothe and Take Action. Pinpoint why you feel the start-of-the-workday dreads. It could be the boss from hell, a negative coworker, work overload or boredom. Or it could just be rekindling your mojo. Whatever it is, go within and see if you can connect with the part of you that dreads going to work. Observe it as a separate part of you, instead of you — with objectivity much like you would notice a blemish on your hand. Talk to it like you would a best friend and express empathy for it. Unlike the old myths about the insanity of talking to yourself, the modern-day approach of talking to your inner parts is one of the best strategies for self-calming. As you separate from the dread, you notice a feeling of inner calm. Then take steps to change circumstances that reduce the dread.
6. Quiet Your Mind. Start-of-the-workday blues happen when your mind is stuck in the future. You’re trying to solve a problem at the office or afraid you won’t be able to achieve a certain goal. Taking time out from the intrusive thoughts to quiet your mind with idle moments — such as a short five-minute meditation or contemplating some aspect of nature — brings your mind into the present moment and helps you unwind, clear your head and relax your mind, body, and spirit.
7. Stay in Good Shape. Think of your mornings as the Olympics or the National Cup. Your physical and mental endurance at the start of the day hinges on being fit. Prepare yourself for workday mornings by unplugging on weekends and taking care of your physical and mental health. Avoid long nights trying to hit deadlines, preparing for a big presentation or analyzing that endless task list. Prime yourself with good food, regular exercise and ample sleep. Avoid nicotine and use alcohol in moderation. Recharge your batteries and balance your work life with fun, leisure and time with friends and loved ones.
8. Break Routines. Break the monotony of rules, ruts and routines. Make sure you plan to take your breaks and lunch hour and stretch them into doing something different. Change scenery by getting outside, even if it’s only for 10 or 15 minutes. Dine away from your desk in a park or a different restaurant. Consider giving your workstation a makeover.
9. H-A-L-T. The acronym H-A-L-T stands for “hungry, angry, lonely, or tired.” This alert signal is a gentle reminder for you to stop, slow down and bring yourself back into balance when your mind starts to dread workday mornings: eat when hungry, let out your anger in a constructive way, call someone if you’re lonely and rest when tired.
10. Act “As If.” Acting as if is a powerful tool that says you can create outer circumstances by acting as if they’re already true. You give yourself to a certain performance as if it’s how you feel. When you act as if, the mood you pretend becomes a reality. When you dread an upcoming week, your body goes with the downturn of your feelings, making you feel worse. You might even hold your head down or slump when you walk. Making body adjustments — pulling your shoulders back, standing or sitting up straight or walking in a more expansive way — can pull you out of dread. Even smiling when you don’t feel like it can jump start a genuine smile and lift your mood for real. Scientists say your facial expressions influence your emotions by triggering specific neurotransmitters, the brain’s chemical messengers. When you smile, you feel good not just because it reflects how you feel, but the facial expression contributes to how you feel.
A Final Word for Managers
Company leaders can support employees by considering what happens in their lives outside of work such as pandemic pressures they’re under with some having to supervise children while WFH as well as meet company expectations. In other words, other factors that might not be apparent could be negatively affecting employee performance. It’s important to practice boosting employee morale by giving positive feedback and recognizing accomplishments as often as possible. Managers might want to refrain from sending late-night emails, being sensitive to variations in time zones or holding late virtual meetings so employees can enter the next workday with time to recover.
Rothbard, N.P., & Wilk, S.L. (2011). Waking up on the right or wrong side of the bed: Start-of-workday mood, work events, employee affect, and performance. Academy of Management Journal, 54 (5), 959-980. http://dx.doi.org/10.5465/amj.2007.0056