A few years ago, I was in the kitchen of a friend’s house preparing for a meal. When we sat down to eat, my friend’s wife wolfed down her supper and then disappeared into another room to do some work. He smiled and said: “Sunday nights are the new Monday mornings around here.”
I was surprised at the time. Now, a few years later, I find myself behaving in exactly the same way. Sunday night has become work time. When I open up my calendar on Sunday evening, a subtle sense of dread comes over me. I feel as if I am behind before the week has even begun. By the time Monday morning rolls around, I am already beginning to feel exhausted.
Apparently Sunday-night anxiety and Monday-morning malaise is not unique to me. A new study led by the University of Exeter’s Ilke Inceoglu has found that many employees experience the “Sunday scaries”. This phenomenon often takes the form of mental preoccupation with the week ahead, as well as feelings of dread, nervousness and difficulty sleeping. “It’s as if your mind starts to turn from what is generally either relaxation or enjoyment at the weekend, into worries about everything you’ve got to do in the working week ahead,” said one of Inceoglu’s respondents.
Inceoglu found that these Sunday scaries were particularly pronounced among people who frequently checked their emails during the weekend, had tasks left over from the previous week, and had unreasonably high expectations of themselves. Matters seem to have been made worse after the pandemic. The rise of home working has blurred the boundaries between work and leisure. The fact that many employees routinely work from home on Friday also means that the trip into the office after the weekend is an even ruder shock.
Even pre-pandemic, Mondays were particularly difficult for some. One study which followed 87 employees over 12 days found their mood and energy levels improved as the week went on, peaking on Friday and then falling off a cliff on Monday. The Monday blues seems to be shared across many cultures: a 46-country study found that Monday is the day people are least likely to say is a “good day”.
People’s subjective assessments of days of the week also appear to drive patterns of behaviour. Economists have noticed a “blue Monday” effect on many financial markets. Investors are generally more gloomy on Mondays and, historically, returns on shares have been lower. Researchers have found that investors tend to be more cautious on Mondays, shying away from risk and making much safer investments. Another pattern of behaviour that is more common on Mondays is suicide: Japanese and Korean studies have found that people are significant more likely to kill themselves on Monday.
Given the problems with Mondays, the big question is: what should we do about it? Researchers have offered some useful suggestions that could help us make Monday less depressing. One is to maintain fairly clear boundaries between work and the rest of your life. People who spend a great deal of their time during the weekend checking in with work via email or thinking about work often had the more pronounced experiences of dread on Monday. One way to do this is to give employees time on Monday morning they can use to prepare for the day ahead.
A second way is to change how you think about the weekend. One US study found that when participants were asked to treat their weekend as a mini-vacation, they tended to do more enlivening activities and returned to work on Monday more energised and satisfied with their jobs.
Finally, it is possible to redesign our Mondays so they have some of the features that make us feel good during the weekend. Researchers have pointed out that we are likely to feel more depressed on Mondays because we have lower levels of autonomy (we feel we can’t do what we like), relatedness (we don’t feel we can connect with people who are important to us), and competence (we don’t get the experience of feeling we are really good at doing something). Introducing simple changes such as starting the day with something you are good at, setting aside a little unstructured time where you are able to do what you want, or setting up a lunchtime date with someone you find enjoyable to be around could make all the difference.
Making small tweaks to your days could improve things a little. However, meeting a friend for lunch on Monday or keeping your work email closed all weekend is only likely to achieve so much. In an economy where the boundaries between work and leisure are increasingly blurred, where employees grapple with mounting financial uncertainty and increasing demands alongside decreasing resources, the Sunday scaries may be difficult to fight off. Perhaps we all need to remind ourselves of a piece of advice from Bertrand Russell: “One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.”
André Spicer is professor of organisational behaviour at the Bayes Business School at City, University of London. He is the author of the book Business Bullshit
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