How to Balance Work Stress in Recovery

Posted on August 4th, 2010

Getting back on your feet after treatment for addiction can sometimes prove quite frustrating. Often those new to recovery throw themselves into their jobs, figuring that if they keep busy, they’ll avoid temptations to use. While keeping busy is a good strategy, overdoing it at work can sometimes have the opposite effect. If you sap your energy by piling up work stress, it’s more than fatigue that may get you down. You need balance, and right now. Here are some ideas on how to balance work stress in recovery.

Talk With Your Boss

Since it’s likely that your boss knows you just came out of treatment – especially if your company-paid health insurance picked up most of the tab for your rehab – your first step should be to speak with him or her. You want to be on the same page with your supervisor about your responsibilities and your ability to fulfill them. So, ask for some private time to go over what you will be working on for the next few weeks and months of your early recovery.

Granted, this is probably the last thing you want to do. Who wants to remind their boss of the fact that they were in rehab. You’re trying to get back to normal and not keep worrying if your co-workers and boss or supervisors are looking at you sideways wondering if you’re going to fall off the wagon. Recovery experts say, however, that being upfront with your boss about taking it a little slow on your return to work is perhaps the best thing you can do. It not only sets the record straight, but it also shows your boss that you are conscientious and are committed to ramping up your productivity as time goes on.

Open your conversation by thanking your supervisor for being understanding and for giving you the opportunity to again prove yourself. Tell him or her that you are working hard at your recovery and will be attending 12-step meetings on a regular basis. You need to assure your boss that you will devote your full attention to your assignments, but that you want to ensure that you do so on a gradual schedule. Once you get the go-ahead to proceed on a lighter schedule, or you’ll be given a longer deadline on certain projects, thank your boss and go back to your desk. You can breathe a quick sigh of relief and acknowledge that you’ve taken a tough but necessary step to help balance out your workload and minimize stress on the job during your early recovery.

What happens if your boss isn’t the understanding sort and more or less demands that you get back to work, that the projects you are responsible for are way past due, or that if you can’t handle your assignments, someone else surely can? First of all, don’t let your emotions get the better of you. Since you do need to work, you’ll have to figure out a way out of this non-meeting of the minds. Ask for a few days and promise that you will come up with a plan to gradually ramp up your work schedule, find others to assist you in getting projects completed on time, or some other solution. If your boss still balks, acknowledge his or her frustration and reiterate your commitment to doing the best job you can. You’re only asking for a little time to get back on your feet. If this still doesn’t work, you may need to make a trip to human resources and speak with them about the situation.

Generally speaking, most bosses are more than eager to have their employees back – particularly if the employee is a valued one necessary to the organization’s success. So, talk to your boss on your return and pave the way for reduced workplace stress.

Engage Your Co-Workers

Naturally, you have friends among your co-workers who are happy you’ve returned to your job. A good move is to talk with them privately, away from the job – so that you can’t be accused of carrying on personal conversations when you’re supposed to be working – and let them know that you will be gradually easing back into your work schedule. Ask for their understanding and assistance, if appropriate, to get certain projects or assignments completed on time. They may need to get approval from the boss as well, or their own supervisor if that person isn’t your boss.

Even if they don’t help you out with the workload, they can provide good moral support and encouragement during lunchtime and informal get-togethers after work. Just be sure these gatherings take place at neutral locations – no bars, clubs, or venues where alcohol or other addictive substances are available. You definitely don’t need to put yourself in harm’s way by having to deal with the temptation to use when the booze or drugs are right in front of you.

Keep your social calendar with your work friends a bit fluid. You can suggest that you participate in some sporting activity or go to a gym or park to work out. Exercise is a great way to rid your body of accumulated stress from the job or other responsibilities.

The point of engaging your co-workers is that these are the people you most often interact with. They know what’s been going on with you. After all, you were away from work for some period of time for treatment or while you were drying out. They may not know the entire story, but if they’re true friends as well as co-workers, they’ll have your best interests at heart. They will try to help you as much as they can. Just don’t expect them to continually pick up the slack from you as that will just cause resentment.

Having someone to laugh with and carry on general conversation – on the job and off – is an important part of your strategy to balance work stress in recovery.

Maximize Your Efficiency

Every employee knows how to waste time. It’s amazing how much time can be gobbled up just chatting in the coffee room, at the copier or water cooler – even in the parking lot. Ditto while you’re on the job. The phone calls, endless searching for missing papers, going to get supplies, getting lost answering non-stop emails – all of these time-robbers eat away at your day. The result is that you increase your stress level by trying to finish up projects and assignments before the end of the day. This is a vicious cycle, but it’s one you can easily break. Here’s how.

Every day before you leave work, make a list of the projects and assignments you will be working on the next day, along with noting the status and due dates. The following morning when you arrive at work, look over your list. You will need to prioritize which ones you tackle first. It may be that you have a deadline looming and you’re nowhere near completion. You may need to do some work on that project first. At least get some help so that you make some progress. If you need an extension because materials or reports or something else is missing and it’s beyond your control, get to it and secure that extension.

What often happens is that people tackle the easy things on their daily to-do list first. It’s nice to see the items crossed off until you get to the end of the day and see that your biggest project, the one with the looming deadline – and also the most difficult or complicated project – hasn’t been touched. You’ve completely ignored it, caught up in doing the easier ones. This is something you’ll need to work on, since avoidance of important projects will not only cause increased stress over lack of progress, but your stress level will likely ratchet up when your boss inquires in a not-too-kindly fashion what the heck is going on with such and such project. Do yourself a favor. Put in some time early in the day – when you’re fresh – on your toughest assignments. Then tick off a couple of easy-to-accomplish ones. You’ll be helping to balance out your work stress in an efficient and reasonable manner.

Leave the Job at Work

You’ll be tempted to bring your work home with you at some point after you return to the job. Don’t. You need to ease yourself back into the daily regimen of going to work, putting in your full 8 hours, ticking off completed assignments, and marshalling your plan for the next day, week, month, etc., according to project due dates and other considerations. What’s the harm in bringing some work stuff home with you? Do you really need to ask this question? When you leave your job at the end of the day, you need a break. This means no bringing folders for review, reading material, travel itineraries to check, none of that. There’ll be time enough the next day or the following Monday to get done what you need to.
The truth is that people who clearly separate work from home are happier and less stressed than those who are constantly trying to sneak in a few hours of work away from the job. If you get the rest and relaxation you need at home, you’re better prepared for the next day’s agenda – whatever it may be. You may be surprised to know that your productivity increases when you have that clean break. Sure, there are tricks that you can use to maximize your time at work, but it is true: You can be more efficient in your 8-hour day than someone who routinely puts in 12+ hours and/or takes work home nights, weekends, holidays and vacations. Which person would you rather be, anyway? Think about your family as well. When you’re home, wouldn’t they really have you completely there, instead of having you physically there but mentally otherwise occupied?

Enlist Family Support

Your family, a crucial part of your support network in recovery, is also important as you learn how to balance work stress. Your spouse or partner, if you have one, is the one person who likely knows your struggles the best, and can aid you immensely in helping to balance your life to reduce stress. When you’re home, spend some uninterrupted time with the family. Talk ideas over with your spouse and make plans for weekend activities the entire family can enjoy. Get involved in leisure activities, playing family games, going out to the movies, renting a family video, enjoying a barbeque or extended family meal.

What you do isn’t as important as the fact that you put your entire focus and effort into sharing this quality time with your loved ones. Rebuilding relationships that may have been strained during your addiction and subsequent treatment requires time, and this is something you’ll need to work at over the months ahead.

The net result of getting your family involved – and getting involved with your family – is that you’re all working together as a cohesive unit. Granted, they’re not sharing in your work stress, but they are helping you to reduce the impact of stress caused by work responsibilities. Think how relaxed you feel after you’ve been on vacation for a good week to 10 days. Everyone needs time away in order to rejuvenate. This is also a good time to make plans for a family vacation at some point in the coming months. This gives everyone – you included – ample time to plan for the getaway. Having a desired goal in your sights helps keep things in perspective. You can overlook some things that would otherwise get you down when you think about the things you’ll do together with your family during your days off or away from work.

Pay Attention to the Basics

While you’re making your daily to-do lists, securing help and assistance from others as needed, spending quality time with your family doing fun things, it’s also important that you pay attention to the basics. The human body doesn’t run on good intentions alone.

• You need to refuel it by eating well-balanced and healthy meals.
• You need to get an adequate amount of sleep each night – the average adult requires between 8 and 9 hours of sleep nightly – allowing your body to restore and revitalize.
• Be sure to drink plenty of water during the day. Rehydration is an excellent way to maintain sufficient bodily fluids and keep stress in check.
• Take appropriate vitamins and supplements.
• If you are on medication, take it as prescribed – especially if the medication is for a chronic condition or is part of your recovery program.

Attend Regular 12-Step Meetings

How do others in recovery manage work stress? Your 12-step fellowship meetings are an excellent place to find out. The group discussions, workshops, and group and individual sharing provide an invaluable source for tips that you may find useful in managing your own work stress in recovery.

The best part about talking over stress-reduction strategies with others in recovery is that they know exactly what you’re going through. They’ve each had to deal with stress in one form or another. Chances are they have a lot of good ideas. You’ll never know if you don’t open yourself up to their suggestions. Take what works and use it, or modify it to meet your needs. Keeping on an even keel, managing stress, learning how to cope with cravings and urges, and helping each other with support and encouragement to maintain sobriety is what 12-step participation is all about. These folks can really be of great assistance in your effort to balance work stress in recovery.

What If You Cave?

Not everything will work out the way you want it to. There are bound to be times when you’ve just had enough and feel that you can’t take the stress. When this happens, take some deep breaths to calm yourself. If you can, walk outside and take in some fresh air. Maybe walk around the complex or parking lot or sit in an employee-designated rest area for a few minutes.

If things are really bad, call your 12-step sponsor and talk things over. Sometimes just having the reassuring sound of your sponsor’s voice will be enough to get you back to being able to deal with the situation at hand. In any event, use this resource if you feel things are getting beyond your control. Above all, don’t look at your current situation as a failure. You just temporarily were unable to deal with the stress or the challenges related to your job. You need a short break, some solid advice, reassurance, and a pep talk – and, not necessarily in that order.

Once you collect yourself, you can go back to work and resume your responsibilities with perhaps some new insight. Stress is part of the workplace. That’s a simple fact. It isn’t that stress occurs, but what individuals do about it. You can fight it and allow stress to overcome you, or you can utilize time-tested strategies to deal with it appropriately. Kick work stress to the curb.

One thing is certain: Once you’ve experienced work stress, you’ll be able to recognize it when it starts to occur again. Symptoms of stress include shortness of breath, rapid pulse, chest pain, nausea, dizziness, aches and pains, constant worrying, poor judgment, anxious thoughts, inability to concentrate, memory problems, procrastination, nervous habits, moodiness, depression, agitation, irritability or short temper, feeling overwhelmed, and a sense of loneliness or isolation.
You may need professional help to deal with work stress in recovery. Through therapy, you’ll learn how to better manage stress, how to relax, how to invest in your emotional help, and how to rely on your support networks. If you have continuing therapy as part of your recovery program, make use of it. You can also go to private counseling to deal with stress.

Maintain a Positive Outlook

It’s easier said than done but the best way to start to balance work so that you minimize stress is to maintain a positive outlook. Remember that work isn’t your life. Work is necessary to help you support yourself and your family, but it’s only a part of your life.

In recovery, one of the great things is that you get to chart your own future. Put your recovery planning in high gear and figure out where you want to be in a year, 2 to 5 years, or 10 years down the line. You may have some goals today that you never dreamed you’d want to tackle before. Recovery is a time of self-discovery, of making dreams happen, of daring to go for the gold.

Think about your near- and long-term goals the next time you feel a little work-related stress coming on. Take a few deep breaths and tell yourself that you’ve got better things to do than choke up over stress. Cut yourself some slack. Smile. Get on with your life. You deserve it. Good job, by the way, in balancing work stress in recovery.

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