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Life Kit: How To Work Less And De-Stress

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For millions of people, working from home has not meant working fewer hours. Worldwide, the average workday has grown longer, about 49 minutes longer over the past year. And people are going to more meetings than they were before the pandemic began. What's more, data from the Census Bureau suggests that 30% of Americans are showing symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder. The team at NPR's Life Kit, along with journalist Celeste Headlee, consulted a therapist to get some advice on how to relax a little more and work a little less.

CELESTE HEADLEE, BYLINE: Amelia Aldao is a therapist in New York City who specializes in treating anxiety. Not only has she seen an increase in the number of patients complaining about burnout, she's experienced some of it herself.

AMELIA ALDAO: I'm a therapist. I run a clinic. I train students and other trainees. I do consulting for startups, and I'm the mom of twins.

HEADLEE: How old are the twins?

ALDAO: They are 3 years old.

HEADLEE: Oh.

ALDAO: I know. So - and I've been co-parenting, working from home, you know, in the pandemic and all that fun stuff. And it's been very challenging. And especially in my line of work - and this is something that my colleagues, you know, share as well - we are, you know, in the front lines of people's emotional well-being.

HEADLEE: Aldao says one of her patients tend to overbook herself, a woman who overcommits and feels pressured to do everything she's asked to do. That pressure, Aldao says, comes from our internal voice, our parents, our families and our workplaces.

ALDAO: And it gets positively reinforced - right? - because the more she does, the more praise she gets, the more accolades she gets, but obviously, the more she's stretching herself thin. And she was getting to the point that she wasn't being able to fulfill many of these obligations.

HEADLEE: Aldao's suggested treatment was what she jokingly calls the Year of No, playing off of Shonda Rhimes' best-selling book. Aldao encouraged her patient to find opportunities to turn down requests and then sit with the guilt she felt as a result - let the feeling pass through her.

ALDAO: Guilt - it's obviously a very, very problematic emotion. But like every other emotion, it sort of - it makes sense - right? - in the right context. So given that it would make sense that we would feel guilty when we don't meet them or when we feel like we haven't met them, that's what guilt is there for, right? It's a signal that things are not going the way we think they should.

HEADLEE: Aldao recommends setting aside time every day to not be productive, to do something silly or fun. Schedule that time in the way you would a trip to the gym. It's easier to prevent the guilt, she says, than to grapple with it once you feel it.

ALDAO: Once it shows up, it's really hard to work with it because it's a very, very powerful emotion. So a lot of the work needs to be done up front, in a way, so that we feel less guilty.

HEADLEE: The point of all this is not just to relieve anxiety, but also to establish boundaries, to choose a closing time when your workday ends and the relaxation begins. Be careful about reading the news at that point, though. Aldao says some of the stress people feel now traces back to the chaotic news cycle. Her advice - walk away if you feel yourself tensing up, and edit your social media feeds.

ALDAO: Add more accounts that are fun and exciting and relaxing, right? So, I don't know, maybe it's more cooking or exercising or plants or travel, architecture...

HEADLEE: Dogs. I recommend dog accounts.

ALDAO: Dogs - there you go - dogs, cat accounts, you know what I mean? Like, the Internet is full of cats, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: That was therapist Amelia Aldao speaking to journalist Celeste Headlee. Celeste focused on overwork and how to relax during a recent episode of NPR's Life Kit. You can find it at npr.org/lifekit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.