Psychiatry / therapy

The Crucial Transition From Work to Home

{Beverly Hills, California}

One of my patients told me that the most frustrating part of his day occurs the moment he arrives home from work when his family accuses him of being isolative and uninterested (due to his first activity upon arrival consisting of sitting in his parked car in the driveway and/or watering the lawn instead of immediately engaging in family affairs).  When my patient told me this, I actually thought about my own behavior upon arriving home from work, and to be honest, I can be pretty bitchy.  That is, unless I allow proper time to switch gears from work mode to home mode.  Those who live with me have observed that my mood typically goes from snappy/serious/irritable to talkative/cheery/joking over the course of 30 minutes.

Not much research exists on this topic, but I assume that there are various reasons that the lingering effects of work can have a negative impact upon arriving home.  Here are a few factors to consider that may contribute to the tough transition:

  • Traffic congestion – feeling trapped in your car, moving inches on the freeway, dealing with aggressive drivers, running behind in your schedule due to delays, and the potential threat of car accidents are all factors that can easily raise one’s heart rate, blood pressure, level of arousal, and automatically trigger you to go into a protective/defensive mode.
  • Work stress – having an extensive to-do list, meeting project deadlines, dealing with coworkers’ differing personalities, tolerating conflicts in opinions of supervisors or administration, etc, are all situations in the work environment that require excess mental energy to deal with, leaving incomplete tasks and unresolved issues that may carry over into the home environment.
  • Home responsibilities – in a perfect world, we might be able to come home after a stressful day and be able to relax and worry about absolutely no other responsibilities.  Yet, in reality, leaving work means moving from one set of responsibilities to another (children or a spouse demanding your attention, chores to complete, dinner to prepare, bills to pay, friends’ events to attend, etc).

How to make the transition:

Establish a routine that works for you.  This involves evaluating your current routine going from work to home and incorporating practices that help you eliminate or get around triggers and negative thoughts.  The Wall Street Journal published an article about “rethinking your after-work routine” and I definitely agree with Cali Williams Yost‘s recommendation to think about the transition from work to home in terms of three stages: leaving the workplace, getting home, and walking through the door.

  • Stage 1:  Leaving the Workplace
    • To ward off negative feelings, consider a routine that acknowledges your accomplishments of the day or think about positive things that occurred during your day.
      • I make sure to leave 10 minutes at the end of the workday to look at my list of accomplishments (ie, the items I checked off on my to-do list) and prioritize tasks left to complete the following day.  This routine works for me because I’m left with a sense of accomplishment focusing on the tasks that I actually DID complete, rather than focusing on what I did not complete.  I also like to organize and tidy my desk so that upon arrival to work the next morning, I feel as if I’m starting new rather than being left with a sense of disorganization from the previous day.  I also try to check in with the nurses and thank them for all their hard work from the busy day.
  • Stage 2:  Getting Home
    • As mentioned above, the commute from work to home can evoke excess stress, so consider methods to minimize aggression.
      • I always admired one of my mentors during residency because he’d bike home from work (something I’d consider doing if I still lived in Oregon rather than southern California), but since it’s far easier for me to drive, I make sure to blast uplifting music on the radio or talk on the phone with one of my close friends (who is also a psychiatrist that commutes home around the same time of day).  I also may volunteer to make a stop at the grocery store, which allows additional buffer time before arriving home.
  • Stage 3:  Walking Through The Door
    • Identify triggers that may set you off upon arriving home (ie, your children demanding your attention, the need to cook dinner, a messy home in need of cleaning, etc) and figure out ways to get around the triggers.
      • For example, I suggested to my patient above that he communicate to his family the need for a few minutes of alone time each day after work to water the grass or sit in his car.
      • For me, I am easily triggered when I come home to a messy kitchen, so in the morning I try to empty the dishwasher and load any dirty dishes left on the counters or sink.


Thought of the Day:  What are some practices that you can incorporate into your routine to ease the transition from work to home?

12 thoughts on “The Crucial Transition From Work to Home

  1. I believe you are describing the two basic type of people in this world by their reactions and preperation to going home. Cat people and dog people. I believe there is some research on the subject, but at a very different level, mainly with the military returning from Iraq and Afganastan and the PTSD. Just a quick thought for today, pets are a key to making the transition bck into the pac. BTW I’m a dog person and love my pac. Blue heeler named Zeus.

  2. This has been a topic of discussion in our home multiple times, and I have been blessed with wife who totally gets it. I need 20 to 30 minutes to de-compress and unwind from my day and she gives me the space to do it. As often as not, if she is home she greets me @ the door, we talk for a minute or two and then she’ll tell me, go ahead and unwind…What a gift. There are a couple of different routes to our home. I intentionally take the more scenic/ winding hills route through the timber for this very reason. (it helps me switch gears…I always feel like I am driving through a park on the way home, paying attention to the turning color of the leaves, the new baby calves that have just been born, etc. When I get home, after giving our dog Libby a little love, and check in with Mrs DM, for me, catching up on e-mails, blog posts, etc. does help me unwind. My job is very physical and mental, so I am keyed up both physically and mentally when I get home. Can’t imagine coming home and being shamed for my need to transition. DM

    • Hi DM — wow, sounds like you’ve fine tuned your routine to a T! The way you even describe your scenic route home sounds very calming. Having Mrs. DM be understanding and accepting of your routine is a wonderful gift…I believe that if couples could be understanding of one another’s need to unwind, it could eliminate much conflict!

  3. As a work-at-home mom, I’m lucky that I don’t have a lot of stress when it comes to transitioning. I do have some aggravation, mind you! 😉 It ain’t easy!

    I’d like to share this post with my husband because much of it applies to him. I applaud you for sharing what helps you (blasting the music, which I love), what helps others (your psychiatrist friend who is able to bike home) and for recognizing your triggers and being proactive. This is a great topic to write about, that’s for sure.

    This piece would help many people if they try following the guidelines/suggestions! What about submitting it to the BP Magazine blog (which publishes psychiatrists’ submissions) or Psych Central’s blog?

    Here are the emails:

    BP (Bipolar) Magazine:
    Attention Shane

    Psych Central please read the guidelines first at this link:

    The email to use is:

  4. In Psychodrama terms, we think of our behaviors as roles. That does not mean “pretense”; it is descriptive. Our work life is full of a variety of situations demanding a variety of roles, and when we hop in the car, our attention is focused on our intention: get home.
    But there are two roles worth developing for this and other transitional situations: the observer role (in this case, self-observer role) and role manager(the role for selecting the appropriate role). Anxiety emerges when we don’t have the right role that the situation demands.
    Arriving at a formal dinner in tennis shorts becomes immediately problematic.

    Here is a suggestion that might be worth trying. Before starting the car, take a few minutes to “look” at yourself in the moment. Check out how you feel, and what you are thinking about, and what left over pieces of business are liable to be nagging at you. Make a note or two about any left-overs.
    Then, think about the trip home, what’s involved, the required role, (car driver, not race car driver).
    When you get home, take another few minutes to think about what roles anyone and everyone at home will be expecting from you, and what roles you need for yourself, and when you can reasonably expect to get to them.
    Let the role manager role select the best sequence of roles for your transition into the variety of home-life roles that are required, and live as fully as you can, into those roles.

    • Hi Stanley, thank you for commenting! I’ve never thought about it in terms of role manager and observer role, so i appreciate your comment! Sounds like with much mindfulness, self-awareness, and practice, utilizing this technique can be accomplished and applied routinely.

      • Don’t know how familiar you are with J.L. Moreno and Psychodrama. It was the first group psychotherapy process, and began in the early 20th century. My training was some years ago at St. Elisabeth’s Hospital in DC
        I have written a 27 or so page pdf intro, the ABC’s of Psychodrama, and if you are interested, and think you have time, I’d be glad to send it to you.
        Of course, a look in Wikipedia on J.L. will give you a quick intro, and you may decide that’s more than enough.
        I enjoy your blog, and among other writings am developing an extended prose look at my long poem, The Hunched Man. You can see what that’s about on my site:

  5. I think you’ve overlooked two highly effective methods for you to transition to a more relaxed frame of mind at home. You could (1) find pics of dappled light in a forest (I’m sure you could find some source), or (2) try a slice of cheesecake.

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