2 Science-Backed Ways To Escape Back-To-Work Blues (And Become A Full-Time Optimist)

Christmas has come and gone. There have been some highs, some lows and some mediums. One thing that’s for sure is that many of us will be dreading heading back to work.

Each year the same feeling pops up, right in the centre of the stomach. Like someone has fed you gone-off prawns which have also managed to get lodged into your throat and are swimming around your heart too. Similar feelings were felt at high school, when summer vacation was coming to an end and the thought of heading back to school in brand new, oversized uniform, filled the stomach with that car-sick feeling. 

Some feelings never leave you. Heading back to work after the Holidays can ignite the same sense of dread and actually make many of us feel sad, low and anxious.  

But hold on, there’s hope.

If you want to make this year a little different and feel good about peeling yourself off that comfortable sofa, we’ve got 2 science-backed ways that’ll help soften the blow.  

First let’s discuss why we get those feelings of apprehension, dread and fear. 

There’ll be many of us who can’t stand their bosses or colleagues at work. Others whose workload is higher than the Shard. And some who can’t be caged for 8+ hours a day. But what is it about going back to work after the festive period that makes it tougher than any other time? We’ve turned to science for the answers. 

A 2018 study by Syrek et al., explored the changes in employee well-being before and after a holiday period, with a focus on whether the thought of heading back to work after the Christmas holiday had cast a negative shadow on employees during December. It was a 15-week long study with 145 “white-collar workers” involved. Here’s what they found: 

  • Those with a smaller workload and less personal tasks in December had the biggest increase in well-being. 
  • Those who relaxed and recovered more during their time off and those who started work with less unfinished tasks had reduced feelings of loss and dread after vacation. 
  • Pleasant anticipation of back-to-work tended to boost well-being before Christmas. 

These findings show that those with smaller workloads, less going on at home and those who had real recovery and recuperation during the festive period, didn’t feel as much dread. Their well-being was higher than those who had high workloads and didn’t manage to rest. 

Children feel it too.

A study Another side of Christmas by Patsy Mill, found that “child depression (is) at its peak in the weeks following the Christmas break.” This message is reiterated by Hansen et al., in their study called Back to school blues: Seasonality of youth suicide and the academic calendar. They found that an increased school year length may have detrimental effects to the pupils.

They documented a “dramatic decrease in youth suicide in months when school is not in session.” Concluding that “a detailed analysis does not find that other potential explanations such as economic conditions, weather or seasonal affective disorder patterns can explain the decrease.” This suggests that pupils face “increased stress and decreased mental health when school is in session.” And these feelings can be elevated once returning back to school after the festive break. 

With a focus on the adult working world, what steps can be taken to decrease back-to-work blues

Learn Optimism 

Dr Seligman, bestselling author of Authentic Happiness and Learned Optimism, has more than 20 years of clinical research to demonstrate how optimism can enhance the quality of life, decrease depression and boost your immune system. The best part is that Seligman has proven that anyone can learn to practice it. His techniques help to:

  • Stop negative feelings and emotions.
  • Develop more personal understanding so people can interpret their own behavior constructively.
  • Create a more positive internal dialogue. 

Seligman describes why optimism and pessimism vary so greatly: 

“The way that the little voice in your head explains your circumstances to you is your “explanatory style.” It could be keeping you in a pessimistic funk and generating a belief in your own helplessness. Developing a more optimistic explanatory style can lead you out of that rut. Pessimists see setbacks as perpetual, pervasive and personal. But optimists bounce back from setbacks because they don’t take them personally. Optimists expect problems to be just temporary.”

One method Seligman uses to create optimism, which you can easily learn, uses the acronym ABC, which stands for Adversity, Beliefs and Consequences. The technique focuses on the “chain of cognition” and how our thoughts and mindset influence our outlook. How do we react to adversity? How do our beliefs affect our emotional response, feelings and reactions? And what consequences occur because of our reactions and beliefs? 

“The way you explain the setback to yourself – not the event itself – determines if you respond by acting constructively or if you fall into despair.”


So how can you become more optimistic and less pessimistic? 

Seligman recommends the following: 

  • Listen to and become aware of your inner dialogue and thoughts about adversity.
  • Each time you face adversity, “see what consequences your thoughts provoke.” Assess whether you’re more likely to give up or take action. 
  • Distract yourself from negative inner dialogues with a physical ritual to snap you out of the cycle. You could clap your hands together and say “right” loudly or jog on the spot. Distraction = refocusing your attention.
  • Write your negative thoughts down to get them out of the way and then evaluate them later in the day or week. 
  • Have a fight with your inner negative thoughts. This should make them back down and recur less. Don’t let them drain you or stop you in your tracks. Dispute them to boost your energy levels. 
  • He notes that pessimism is also needed at times, “to shape a more conservative assessment of reality.” So hold on to just a little.  

When you next think of heading back to work, try these active methods to see if that dread lifts. Who knows, you may become one of those optimists you just can’t stand. 

Analyse Your Work Situation 

If after trying to be more optimistic you are still struggling to get rid of that real dread, then you should seriously analyse your situation. Tap into your thoughts and find out whether your work situation can be tweaked or shifted to boost your happiness levels. Is your job worth all of this uncontrollable angst? Or is there something better out there? (There’s always something better out there.) 

A well known study by Vella-Brodrick et al., examined what exactly contributed to a person’s happiness (with a focus on pleasure, engagement and meaning) and how this impacts their overall wellbeing. They used a sample of 12,622 adults from the United States who completed online surveys measuring “orientations to happiness, positive affect, negative affect, and life satisfaction.” 

They found that the three orientations to happiness that reflected better subjective well-being were meaning and engagement. And this appeared for most participants, regardless of their background or personality. They concluded that although the hedonistic approach (seeking pleasure and avoiding pain) is important when it comes to achieving happiness, a eudaemonic approach (finding meaning, knowing the inner you and fulfilling your potential) is just as, if not more important. 

The question to ask yourself is whether your job fulfills those happiness requirements. 

Answer these questions. Write them down and write out your answers:

Q. How much meaning does your job have?

Q. How much meaning do you get from your job?

Q. Is your job fulfilling?

Q. In your opinion, if you left your job, how hard would the company find it to replace you? 

Q. In their opinion, if you left your job, how hard would the company find it to replace you? 

Q. Are you yourself (as much as you can be) at work?

Q. Does your job utilise all of your potential?

Q. Do you engage at work or just drift? 

Q. Do you dread work every Sunday evening, not just at the end of the festive season?

Once you’ve answered these questions. Walk away and come back to them in a few hours or days. Read what you’ve written and at that point assess whether your job is feeding and nourishing your soul, mind and body in the ways it could be. If it’s not, start making small plans and adjustments to get you closer to a role that does fulfill you. 

You may need to take a pay cut, or start from the bottom again, but if it allows you to dabble in something that makes you feel light, fluffy and awake, then it’s worth it. Stress is one of your brain’s biggest enemies, so too is misery. So take your life by the horns and tip toe closer to achieving happiness. Now. 

Brought to you by Peak, makers of the Peak – Brain Training and Peak Sleep – Sleep Better apps. Start brain training and sleeping well today:

Sources cited:







Learned Optimism


Maisie Bygraves

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