The Art of Detachment: Why Unplugging is the Best Way to Recharge

blog_illustration1When leaving the workplace- after shedding an average day’s worth of blood, sweat, and tears- you just want to close that door behind you, and take a load off. But it’s never that simple, is it? Workplace stress, like unruly toilet paper stuck to one’s shoe, hitches a ride with you out of that door. The pressures of modern working life leads to most people bringing their work home with them whether they want to or not. If they don’t, there might be missed opportunities or severe repercussions. But what are the costs of our home lives becoming extensions of our working lives? What are the knock-on effects of work-infested leisure time?

Sabine Sonnentag’s paper, ‘Psychological Detachment From Work During Leisure Time’ (2012) cogently explains the benefits of leaving all work-related thoughts and duties where they rightfully belong- the workplace.  Not only is detaching from work something that people should look forward to and enjoy doing, but it actually comes gift-wrapped with a whole bunch of bonuses for your health.

The benefits of detaching from work

But what exactly does ‘detachment’ mean? In the literature, it’s referred to as an “individual’s sense of being away from the work situation” (Etzion, Eden, & Lapidot, 1998, p. 579), and more generally, “mental disengagement from work during off-hours” (Sonnentag, 2012, p. 114). According to a collection of studies, this kind of detachment from work brings about the following health benefits:

1)   Increased Well-Being

People who psychologically detach from work in their free time report higher levels of well-being than those who ruminate on work-related issues. Sonnentag writes, “Employees who feel more detached from work during off-hours are more satisfied with their lives and experience less emotional exhaustion and lower levels of other symptoms of psychological strain, such as poor sleep” (p. 115). Unsurprisingly, those who don’t detach are far more likely to experience exhaustion and burnout.

2)   Improved Affective States

In a series of diary studies, those more inclined to detach from work were found to be more cheerful and content, and less depleted and fatigued than those who didn’t detach. The degree of these favourable affective states increased with the level of detachment. In other words, the more you detach from work in your free time, the happier you are.

3)   Buffer for stressful job-related situations

Detachment can also play a crucial role as a buffer between difficult, stressful situations at work, and the potential psychological or psychosomatic consequences. For example, a study showed that individuals who experienced workplace bullying or harassment could reduce symptoms of psychological strain (e.g. lack of sleep or depression) by detaching from work in their off-hours.

But some might interject that while detaching sounds great it’s simply not a luxury that most of us can afford. The demands of modern working life means the work is always going to be there, and it needs to be done well. Here is where detachment nonchalantly reveals its trump card-

4)   Improved Job Performance

Detachment actually improves task performance, proactivity and problem solving.

Studies show that detachment actually improves task performance, proactivity and problem solving. It makes sense when you think about it. The benefits of being happier, sleeping more, and feeling less stressed culminate in you performing better when you are at work: “when employees detached from their job during the weekend, they felt more refreshed at the beginning of the next workweek and showed more proactive work behavior throughout the week” (Sonnentag, p. 115).

The pitfalls of constant connectivity

Now we know the health benefits of detaching, we should ask ourselves why detachment is so rare, and even seemingly impossible for some. We look at it as a modern-day feat of strength; impressive, but never something you’d be able to do yourself. But what is it that makes us think about work so much in our leisure time? Outside of the general pressure and stress of modern living (which undoubtedly lie at its core), a primary facilitator of our rumination on work-related thoughts is technology. Mobile technology in particular has enabled the workplace to infiltrate our homes, and graft itself onto our very bodies. Perhaps work follows us around wherever we go, because our mobile phones, tablets, and laptops do too. All kinds of work-related stimuli like calendar appointments and important files are available at your fingertips, whether you’re in the bathroom or the bedroom. Even in our most intimate living spaces, we have seamless access to our work.

We seem to be trapped in this self-defeating cycle of stress and exhaustion, entangled in the figurative wires of our wireless technology.

Research from the University of Gothenburg, led by Sara Thomée, has shown that excessive use of mobile phones and computers- particularly at night- leads to an increase in sleeping problems, depressive symptoms, and stress related issues. These health indicators of stress, fatigue and depression correlate with the consequences of not detaching from work. And in turn, it’s computers and mobile phones that make it so difficult to detach. While you’re using your computer in your free time to browse social media or watch a film, work related emails could just pop up anytime. The arduous spectres of your boss, colleagues and clients quietly haunt you around your home. Or, like vigilante Ghostbusters, we go hunting for them– scrolling through inboxes and news feeds, compulsively searching for work-related stimuli. In turn, you’re thinking about work again, a cue for the unhealthy rumination to resume. We seem to be trapped in this self-defeating cycle of stress and exhaustion, entangled in the figurative wires of our wireless technology. So, what might we do to overcome these tightly interrelated problems of living and working in the digital age that pose a genuine threat to our health? How is it possible to detach from high-pressure jobs in the age of ubiquitous technology?

Breaking habits and making habits

By no means is the situation helpless. It all starts with recognizing there is a problem, and wanting a solution. I think a big part of it is that most of us are passive in our consumption of digital information, and likewise, oblivious to our technological habits. Once we start thinking about where and when we are using technology, we can start to consider ways that this might be unnecessary and even unhealthy. Once unhealthy habits are identified, we can go about trying to cut them out, in turn creating new, healthier habits. For example, there are unassuming workarounds that could help cut down our mobile phone and computer use in our leisure time, enabling us to maintain higher levels of detachment.

Get creative with it. Think about how you can create these little bubbles of space-time that are free of technology, work, and stress.

One idea is to make your bedroom (or, at the very least your bed) a technology-free zone. No late-night email checks or quick texts just before sleep. A good night’s sleep will put you in great stead to deal with those things- and everything else– in the morning. So instead of aimlessly scrolling through news feeds and timelines, you could actually read that book you’ve been pretending to read. You can also make the extremely modest investment in an analogue alarm clock, so you have no excuses to keep your phone by your pillow.  But what about outside of the bedroom? Cultivating your personal interests and hobbies in your leisure time is a great way to detach from work. For example, rather than going over work-related content, you could be learning about something that fascinates you or doing an activity that really gives you kicks. You could also try things like inviting a friend or partner to spend an evening with you and make a pact not to bring or use your phones at all. That might be one of the best gifts you can give someone nowadays: your full attention. You’ll find that increased levels of attention and direct contact in personal relationships can be highly fulfilling in itself, while helping you maintain healthy levels of detachment. Get creative with it. Think about how you can create these little bubbles of space-time that are free of technology, work, and stress.

This isn’t to say that a totally tech-free life is what we should be striving towards. We know that such a lifestyle choice is riddled with demanding sacrifices that most modern working schedules can’t accomodate. The point is simply to look at your current habits that might be negatively contributing to your health, and find ways of managing and mediating them. We should be trying to find an enriching and sustainable balance between being with our devices and without them. So when the next working day is over, try to detach, unplug, and recharge for real.

What do you do to promote healthy levels of detachment from work and technology? We’d love to hear your suggestions via email or in the comments below!

A big thanks to Alex and Micha for their active support in creating this article.

– Etzion, D., Eden, D., & Lapidot, Y. (1998). Relief from job stressors and burnout: Reserve service as a respite. Journal of Applied Psychology, 83, 577–585.
– Sonnentag, S. (2012). Psychological detachment from work during leisure time: The benefits of mentally disengaging from work. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(2), 114-118.
– Thomée S, Harenstam A, Hagberg M:Mobile phone use and stress, sleepdisturbances and symptoms of depression among young adults–aprospective cohort study. BMC Publ Health2011,11:66.

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