Beat the back-to-work blues and improve your mental health – The Telegraph

It’s not just schoolchildren who feel a sense of dread in September – Dr Rangan Chatterjee explains how to overcome the post-summer slump
There’s a feeling in the air right now that’s reminiscent of that first week in January, when the excitement of Christmas has faded, the decorations are packed away and schoolchildren and adults alike slope reluctantly back to schools and offices.
“September is always a tricky time of year and it can often feel like a bit of a slog,” says Dr Rangan Chatterjee, author of Happy Mind, Happy Life and host of the Feel Better Live More podcast. “It’s also a time when we begin to question things, which makes the daily grind feel harder still. Summer provides us all with a pause and a change of pace, so when September hits we’re often left thinking, ‘Is this what I want to be doing?’”
This is particularly true for parents, he says. “If you have young children, you’ve probably had some time off to be with them. Or, because of the way we work now, you may have endured the challenge of trying to work from home while keeping your kids entertained. Either way, your routine will have changed yet again this week and lie-ins will become a thing of the past as the morning rush takes over.
“Even if you don’t have children, your commute will be getting busier, colleagues will be returning from holiday and a new routine begins. Humans are not fantastic when it comes to change – that’s why we find this time of year so hard.”
This September feels bleaker than ever, thanks to the cost of living crisis. A recent study by Shawbrook Bank found almost nine in 10 people are worried about it, with one quarter saying it’s the leading cause of their stress. The study also found 18 per cent have lost sleep in the last few months due to concerns over rising costs.
And then there’s the change in weather, with cooler temperatures and longer nights meaning less time spent outside being active, which can affect mood and energy levels. However, Dr Chatterjee says there are plenty of ways we can keep that summer holiday feeling going…
You don’t even need to step on a plane or leave your house. All we need to do, according to Dr Chatterjee, is ask ourselves what it is about our holidays that we love. The slower pace? Time spent with family? Being more active? And then try to create small moments of that when we’re home. “I also believe the true joy of holidays is the sense of calmness and space they give us,” he says.
Dr Chatterjee recommends daily holiday habits such as walking, swimming or cycling, as well as learning how to sit still and ponder, something we often do unwittingly on holiday. “We should all get into the habit of treating ourselves to a holiday experience by finding time for some mental stillness, perspective and reflection. If you manage that, you can take a holiday from your life every single day.”
On the subject of stillness, he also recommends carving out 10 minutes of what he calls “intentional solitude” every day. “This is the most important thing I do for my health and happiness. I take 10 minutes every day just for myself, where the only rule I set is to not look at Instagram or read the news. You can spend it meditating, journaling or just having a cup of coffee. One of the best things it offers me is a sense of perspective and my problems suddenly don’t seem so big.”
Dr Chatterjee says there’s another crucial reason to embrace stillness and solitude, without combining it with movement or external devices like TVs and phones, and that’s freedom to find peace in any situation. “If you are only able to take time out or be alone when you’re moving or distracted by your phone, you become reliant on it. It will be tricky at first, and it will take practice, but being able to access stillness anywhere and at any time will become your superpower.”
Over the summer, Dr Chatterjee stopped releasing his podcast and came off social media. “Not everybody needs to change their social media use, but for me personally it works well. It allows me to be more present and check in with my own thoughts more.”
He advises looking at the apps you have on your phone and deciding which ones bring the most value to your life. “Don’t assume you can’t live without certain ones, like work email on your phone,” he says. “You’ll be surprised how much happier you feel when you limit them.” He also recommends customising your home screen and putting all your apps in a folder so they’re harder to access, as well as turning off notifications and putting your phone in a different room when you don’t need it.
Amid a cost of living crisis, it would be remiss of us to advise joining the Great Resignation and finding a job that fills you with happiness (and not dread every Sunday night). “It’s unrealistic to advise everybody to go out and find a job they love,” says Dr Chatterjee. “Especially in the current climate. But, if you don’t enjoy your job, then for five minutes every day do something that you do love, which studies show makes us more resilient to stress. That might mean watching your favourite TV show, listening to your favourite band while you make dinner, or playing music. The one pillar of health and wellness that we often forget is joy and passion. So, if you don’t get it from your job, get it somewhere else.”
Lastly, forget big changes and make small ones instead. “I’ve been a GP for more than 20 years and I’ve seen tens of thousands of patients in that time,” he says. “One of the biggest mistakes people make when they want to feel happier is to try and overhaul their life. If you’re feeling lost or fed up right now, the key is to start small.”
Dr Chatterjee is a fan of forming tiny healthy habits that can be slotted into your day – and ideally attached to an existing habit. “I do a little strength workout in the five minutes it takes my coffee to brew every morning. In that time, I lift a dumbbell in my pyjamas. It’s just a small thing, but I can slot it into my day and I do it consistently, so it works.”
Another small habit he’s recently formed is getting up earlier. “Over the summer, my wife and I asked ourselves what we wanted to change as we head into autumn and we decided it was stress-free mornings. The time our children start school won’t change,and neither will the time we start work. But we can change how organised we are the night before, and we can wake up 15 minutes earlier, so every day isn’t a mad rush. We’re not perfect, and we’ll see how this new habit goes, but it’s a small change that will make life a bit happier – and that’s always worth a try.” 
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