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The Boston Globe

Anxious workers suffer Sunday-night syndrome

By Chelsea Lowe, Globe Correspondent, 11/16/03

Sunday night is an uneasy time for systems analyst Tom Santos. With the weekend drawing to a close, the 38-year-old said he finds himself thinking more and more about the next day at work.

The feeling peaks right after dinner when, he said, he gets the sense that "this is your final meal before you have to go back to prison."

Santos enjoys his work for a company north of Boston. But on Sunday nights, he said, "I start to think about solutions to specific problems and I have a hard time sleeping."

He isn't alone. Call it Sunday-night syndrome: the anxiety or depression workers feel as the weekend winds down and Monday looms.

The back-to-work blues aren't new. However, mental health and human resource professionals say that anecdotally they have noticed a sharp rise in depression and stress among workers over the past two years as the economy soured and joblessness ratcheted up.

Although the national unemployment rate dropped to 6 percent last month from 6.1 percent in September, job holders still remain nervous. They feel burdened from all sides as employers cut staff and demand more from remaining workers. Overstressed employees often feel trapped and pessimistic about finding more enjoyable work at a reasonable wage.

These harried workers often feel as if the weekend is over by Saturday night, said specialists.

"You start having to contend with things to prepare for work on Sunday: ironing your shirts, getting your dry cleaning, putting gas in your car. People feel that even their personal time is getting eaten up by the job," said Alice Buckner, a human resources and organization development specialist who works with companies in New England and California.

Sunday-night depression is "much more common than people realize," said Dr. Harry Sobel, a clinical psychologist and president of Sobel & Raciti Associates, a corporate consulting and employee assistance program company in Wayland and Providence.

The weekend's close, Sobel said, can elicit "a normal appropriate mood change because play and fun is ending." But some individuals experience "more profound symptoms - jitters, fears, fantasies of things going wrong." He added that "prior conditioning, a result of high school or college patterns where the individual left work till Sunday night and then panicked as time ran out" can continue to engender feelings of stress at the same time every week.

Sobel himself is not immune. "I had this syndrome my entire life. I had it in high school. I hate Sundays," he said.

Common symptoms can include anxiety, moodiness, thoughts racing, and problems with sleep. Sufferers can become "more obsessional, mentally rehearsing upcoming meetings at work," said Sobel. Professional help might be warranted for workers who encounter physical symptoms, such as difficulty sleeping, appetite changes or trouble concentrating at work on Monday morning, he said.

Depression specialist Richard Bedrosian of Northborough, who worked as a clinical psychologist for 25 years before becoming president of MySelfHelp.com, said he treated many patients who "experienced insomnia and agitation on Sunday evenings but could sleep well pretty much the rest of the week."

Retired physical therapist Suzanna Black knew such sleepless Sunday nights.

"I would just about fall asleep and then suddenly remember something that was due tomorrow and feel like I got a jolt of adrenaline and I'd be wide awake," recalled Black, 63.

Although she enjoyed helping patients, a promotion to management and a growing emphasis on billable time meant "a gray cloud of responsibility and accountability settling in" as weekends drew to a close.

Given a climate of widespread work insecurity, Buckner said, employees often feel pressure to show up for work no matter what.

Many, she said, "don't allow themselves to arrange personal matters Monday through Friday. I've met literally hundreds of people who tell me they don't take a lunch hour, who think they'll somehow lose their bonus if they do their car maintenance or parent-teacher conference" during the work day.

Conditions at work are not always to blame. Some people, Buckner said, try to fit too much activity into the weekend and the week. Employers, she said, can improve employee loyalty and productivity by encouraging restorative pauses such as full lunch-hour breaks and examining quality-of-life amenities.

Companies that neglect worker-friendly features are "going to have a hard time attracting talented people, especially when the economy shifts," she said.

Employees in suburban office parks and other remote locations can feel especially isolated, Buckner said, but companies can help workers feel connected to the larger community by hosting health fairs, book fairs, blood drives, and other fellowship-building activities.

"Some employers, like huge manufacturing plants, know their site is not the most exciting place, so they bring some excitement to the office," Buckner said. She noted that some companies have added worker amenities like on-site "photo processing, dry cleaning and tailoring, getting your car repaired while you're working."

Bedford-based Mitre Corp., which operates federally funded research and development centers, is among those offering services that address worker needs.

"It's in the company's best interest and the employee's best interest," said Joyce Barth, occupational health nurse and Mitre's health and wellness supervisor.

Although Mitre's assistance program doesn't address Sunday-night depression specifically, Barth said the company offers counseling through its employment assistance program. It also tries to accommodate workers through flextime, telecommuting, legal and financial counselors, and other perks. Workers in the company's Bedford office may also enjoy onsite physical therapy, seminars, yoga classes and - although employees pay for this on a per-use basis - chair massage.

For many American workers just now, though, onsite massage is hardly an option. So how can they cope with the working blahs?

Santos said exercising, yoga, and getting together with friends help to minimize the stresses in his work and personal life.

Sobel advises workers to minimize impending dread by "building in more fun during the week, especially Monday. I make sure that Monday nights are frequently a time that I meet friends, build in romance... make Monday night a good night."

Severe depression and anxiety that don't respond to these kinds of activities may require therapy or medication, Sobel added. Most companies have an employee assistance program, which can be the place to start.

Buckner advises burnt-out employees to remind themselves "of why the work they do is useful" - or if not, to think about the job's advantages: convenient location, money for retirement or a child's college tuition, health benefits. And she cautions employers who rule through fear.

"When you skimp on trust and wellness and harmony, and you overwork your staff, as soon as the economy shifts, you're going to take hits... people won't want to work for that company in the future, when they do have a choice again."

Chelsea Lowe is a freelance writer.

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