Does an impending feeling of dread hover over you on Sunday afternoons, casting a shadow over the rest of your night? Perhaps you feel anxious, uneasy and irritable; as if you’re on borrowed time.
It’s not only fun times with family and friends or time relaxing on the couch ending abruptly that trigger the so-called “Sunday blues” or “Sunday scaries”. For many legal professionals, worries about the responsibilities, deadlines and demands of the working week ahead contribute to this troubling phenomenon.
The Sunday blues are feelings of anxiety or dread experienced the day before heading back to work after the weekend, according to mental health and meditation specialist Headspace. Over time the feelings can become a conditioned response, in much the same way as Pavlov’s dog, as we equate work with stress.
This association can trigger what’s called ‘anticipatory anxiety’ – increased anxiety and stress about something that will happen in the future – which kicks the body’s fight-or-flight response into gear. When we’re in this mode, hormones cortisol and adrenaline cause us to experience real stress in response to a perceived threat.
“Having a couple of days off can give you time to think about what is coming and what is ahead of you,” says Claire Bibby, a professional coach and lawyer.
“There’s that anticipation that there’s potentially something negative around the corner – the dread of what is going to come tomorrow.”
While the Sunday blues isn’t a recognised clinical disorder, psychology consultant Dr Jo Lukins says it’s very much a real and difficult experience. According to a 2018 LinkedIn survey, 81 per cent of people experience an elevated sense of anxiety on Sunday evening in anticipation of the week ahead.
“The experience will vary for the individual, but there’s no doubt that for most people it’s a combination of both thinking about the end of the weekend and the start of the week, and the emotions that go alongside that,” Dr Lukins says.
An experience she dubs the “Friday afternoon frenzy” is a significant contributor to the Sunday blues among legal professionals, says Bibby.
“A lot of people dump whatever is in their in-tray or whatever is bubbling away on their lawyers with the expectation the lawyer will fix it. Over the weekend, you know it’s sitting there, you know that the bombs are ticking, and you can see on your phone how many emails have come in over the weekend.
“All of this is waiting for you on Monday morning when you go back into that really high-pressure environment where the expectations are often very high.”
Dr Lukins says occasional bouts of the Sunday blues are common and short-lived, but if you’re often feeling anxious at the end of each weekend, as well as throughout the week, it could be a sign of a more serious mental health issue.
“I wouldn’t be too concerned if it doesn’t happen very often, but if the feeling of dread extends beyond the weekend and starts to become a common feeling, it could be a sign of something bigger that’s happening,” she says. “When we look at some of the precursors to burnout, dread about attending work is often one of them.”
“When we look at some of the precursors to burnout, dread about attending work is often one of them.”
Turn your frown
Side-stepping the Friday afternoon frenzy and putting aside time to plan for the week ahead is one of the most effective strategies to avoid the Sunday blues, Dr Lukins says.
“A key thing that challenges people is when life feels out of control and unpredictable, so having this Friday afternoon routine helps give you a sense of control,” she says.
“Of course, something can come along, and it can all go pear-shaped, so we’ve always got to be adaptable and resilient to those challenges. But if the first time you’re looking ahead to your week is Monday morning, you probably need to bring that back.”
Bibby says using Friday to “block out time in your diary for thinking and other types of work so your next week is not completely chock-a-block with back-to-back meetings” is especially important for lawyers.
On the weekend, she has two important pieces of advice: don’t sleep in and enjoy some exercise.
“My alarm goes off every single day at 5.45am and I make sure I get up every single morning and go out for a walk with my husband and two dogs,” Bibby says. “If you can get proper sleep and have a constant routine, both of sleep and of exercise, that helps enormously with balancing your internal responses come Sunday evening.”
While it may be tempting to use the weekend to catch up on your to-do list to keep the Sunday blues at bay, Bibby says working in lieu of relaxation isn’t a sensible strategy for the long term.
“If you start doing it too regularly, you just start working seven days a week. Working over the weekend is not an answer – at least, not a regular answer to dealing with this issue.”
Dr Lukins says planning enjoyable non-work activities during the week gives you something to look forward to and helps to counter anxiety. You might schedule a game of tennis or sign up for a morning gym class, meet a friend for dinner or simply block out time for a mid-week Netflix session with your partner.
And then there’s your mindset. Instead of telling yourself you dislike Monday or that you don’t want to go to work, or even engaging in self-sabotaging behaviours like staying up late on Sunday, Dr Lukins recommends positive self-talk.
“Framing the week ahead positively can make a difference.”
Gratitude, too, is an effective antidote to feelings of anxiety.
“One of the best ways to overcome dread and worries is to turn our focus into gratitude,” Dr Lukins says. “What are you grateful for this weekend? What did you enjoy about it?”
If nothing else, she says slipping into work on Monday morning is a lot like going to the gym.
“The thought of doing something is often worse than actually getting started on the activity. Once you get into the swing of it, you’re usually okay.”