They clock off at 9pm on a Friday – but their last email is logged at 3am. They take conference calls on holiday, wake up in cold sweats over looming deadlines – even their sleep talk is peppered with business jargon. By Monday morning, they look like they’ve spent the whole weekend hunched over their laptop, wired on coffee. It’s hard to believe they ever left the office.

Why is it that some people just can’t relax at the weekend?

Just 53% of workers come back feeling rested after they’ve been on holiday

Across the globe, a heady mix of individual ambitions, brutal organisational cultures and the technology to make work accessible 24 hours a day is contributing to a spiralling crisis of stress. The American Institute of Stress estimates job stress costs the US economy about $300 billion in lost productivity every year. According to research by online travel company Expedia, just 53% of workers come back feeling rested after they’ve been on holiday.

In the UK there’s Saturday syndrome, the mysterious tendency of workers to fall ill in their free time – thought to be the result of stress withdrawal. In the US there’s the 60-hour working week – a habit known to double the risk of a heart attack. In Japan they’ve even coined a word for the problem; karoshi, or death by burnout.

For ordinary office workers like Samantha King, a project manager in the financial services industry in London, even the act of kicking back has become stressful. “If you don’t have a Facebook status or Instagram post – hashtag doing this, hashtag doing that – if you stay away from social media for half a day, people are like ‘are you OK?’”

But for every moaning colleague struggling through Monday, there’s the high-powered hotshot who breezes in looking unreasonably fresh – even with a much bigger workload. Why is it that, while some people get ahead, others get sick?

When you bring work-related stress home with you, you’re keeping that physiological response activated

“When you bring work-related stress home with you, you’re keeping that physiological response activated. If that continues – well, it’s not going to be good for you,” says Jennifer Ragsdale, a psychologist at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

For years, research has compared the relative virtues of weekends spent catching up on work to those spent lying in a darkened room or going sailing. But this might be missing the point, says Ragsdale. “Two people experiencing the same thing, they are going to react to it in different ways.”

Bouncing back

The subject of bouncing back from stress first piqued Ragsdale’s interest back in 2011, when she noticed the recovery gap among her friends – and she’s been striving to get to the bottom of it ever since.

For her study, 183 workers from various industries responded to online surveys on a Sunday evening detailing how they’d spent their weekends – and how they felt as a result. Activities were categorised into either low effort (taking a shower) or work-related (personal paperwork, replying to emails).

Next, the same workers were tested to determine their emotional disposition. They were given a list of positive (enthusiastic, interested) and negative (distressed, upset) feelings, and asked to report how they’d usually feel.

People with a tendency to see the worst in a situation tended to find it difficult to unwind, whatever they did

As you’d expect, the group with a positive outlook found it easier to detach from work stresses. Those with high levels of “negative effect” – i.e. people with a tendency to feel angry and frustrated and see the worst in a situation – tended to find it difficult to unwind, whatever they did; even mindless activities like watching TV didn’t take their minds off work, while preparing for the weekend ahead only made them feel more resentful.

But it’s a bit more complicated than that because not everyone sits perfectly within one category or the other. Those who scored the highest on positive traits struggled the most with “mastery” – the ability to view difficult tasks as something to be mastered rather than something to be avoided – if they were also prone to wallowing. Ragsdale puts this down to our innate negativity bias: all things being equal, humans can’t help devoting more attention to experiences which are bleak and unpleasant.

“We all evaluate the situations we encounter very differently. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ way to deal with stress,” says Ragsdale.

According to business psychologist Jane Clarke, for some people, even attempting to relax can be counter-productive. “Knowing they haven’t opened the post for two weeks and they have a lot of work to do, it would be more stressful for them to relax.”

This is something Corrine Mills, a career coach based in London, can also relate to. “Some people aren’t very good at sitting down in a darkened room – they need to do something active.” Mills recommends taking up a hobby such as yoga, going for a run, or simply making the time to visit the park – anything that will take your mind off work for a few minutes.

If you are one of these people with high “negative effect” tendencies who can’t unwind on the weekends, there are ways to change your mindset. Since our experiences with recovery are down to attitude, not just activity, there are ways to simply change the way you think.

Ragsdale suggests learning how to re-frame your thoughts positively – actively trying to see the positive in their jobs rather than ruminating on the bad. Several studies have found that adopting this attitude can reduce the risk of burnout and foster greater initiative, creativity and cooperation after a six month period.

So if you succeed in changing your mindset and confine weekend stress to the history books, soon your greatest concern might be what to do with all your free time. Just don’t forget to turn up to work on Monday.

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