How to 'switch off' from a stressful work day

Occupational psychologist Gail Kinman talks about the importance of downtime and explains how even busy teachers can fit it into their busy days

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Teachers often find it challenging to keep a healthy balance between their work and personal life – particularly during term-time. Although teaching can be very satisfying, the demands of the job can spill over and conflict with personal roles and responsibilities. 

You may find yourself marking or preparing lessons late into the night, at weekends and during holiday periods. You may also find it hard to switch off mentally from work worries and concerns.  

Working long hours and being preoccupied by work can also affect our personal relationships; it might be difficult to find the time or energy to spend quality time with family and friends. Some people may withdraw socially, making it harder to relax and connect with other people.

Taking time to recover

Recovery time is essential for long term-health and optimum job performance – if you neglect your own needs you will eventually burn out. 

While short-term stress can boost the immune system and help us achieve peak performance, research findings show that our mental health suffers and we become more vulnerable to infectious disease (such as colds and flu) over the longer term. Many teachers find that they tend to pick up a bug a couple of days into their holidays and research findings support this.

So what can be done? People differ in the extent to which they wish their work and home lives to be kept separate –some prefer firm boundaries, while others thrive on juggling work and personal tasks simultaneously.

Nonetheless, my research shows that downtime is crucial to replenish our mental and physical energy and avoid burning out. It isn’t easy to just switch off from a busy and stressful day, but there are several ways you can set some boundaries. It is particularly useful to identify “corridors” to help you separate work from your personal life. 

Creating "corridors"

When you get home, dedicate a short amount of time to go for a run or do some yoga, phone a friend (but avoid the subject of work), cook dinner, do a crossword puzzle, or watch TV for a half-hour.  Sit down for a while and give your full attention to your partner or children.

Just a short amount of time doing something different after work will help you switch off from work-mode. I find walking my dog helps me – when I get home I am generally relaxed, unless I have had a particularly trying day.

Research shows that we relax the most when we rest the systems we use at work – for example, teachers may benefit from some quiet time, or doing something physical rather than mental. Whatever you do to unwind, try not to see it as wasted time but vital to help you restore your energy to face a new day.  For the maximum benefit, try not to multi-task and be fully present. 

Simple mindfulness techniques can help you remain in the moment, rather than dwell on the past or worry about the future. Apps like Headspace can be particularly helpful in encouraging mindful awareness and reducing anxiety and stress. You will see a difference very quickly.


Gail Kinman is a professor of occupational psychology at the University of Bedfordshire. 

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