Switching off - psychological detachment from work

Have you ever thought that this phrase – “24 / 7 365” – applies to you and your work?  If yes, then you know that you do not stop working, e.g. check emails, and you think about your work, e.g. not forgetting about a difficult task, during off job-time.  Because you do these things, you do not experience the  “switching off” which can be seen as essential to leisure.  While your firm or organization may push something like the 24/7 – 365 approach to your work or you may believe that your work requires your continuous occupation with job-related issues or concerns, the research shows that failure to disengage from time to time can have negative side effects.  These negative effects impact not only you, but your firm or organization, too.

This post provides a look at a recent summary of the research on mental detachment from work during off-job time provided by a leading psychological scientist.  This post will note the following:  the detachment concept; insights about psychological detachment; variables and factors affecting detachment; and some practical implications.  The post closes with a final note to managing partners and firm leaders.

Early researchers described the concept psychological detachment as an “individual’s sense of being away from the work situation”.  This means mental disengagement during off-work hours.  To achieve this sense of being away, the worker must refrain from job activities during 0ff-work hours and must not think about job-related issues during off-job time.  Everyday language describes this experience as “switching off”.  This important activity does equate with a detached attitude about your job.  Also, a person’s level of engagement has no relationship to detachment from work during off-work time, according to research discussed by the author.

The body of research suggests that psychological detachment benefits the worker’s well-being and relates to various aspects of job performance.  That research yields four (4) insights:

  1. Workers who detach from their jobs after work have higher psychological well-being.  They report more satisfaction with their lives, experience less emotional exhaustion, and sleep better.  These aspects of well-being can associate with long-term changes.
  2. The effects of psychological detachment evidence in day-to-day changes and fluctuations.  Past research shows associations in noticeable changes in contentment, cheerfulness, fatigue, depletion, irritation, and job performance relative to detachment from work.
  3. Psychological detachment can mitigate the worker’s response to stressful work situations. Studies involving workplace bullying and sexual harassment have shown it has a buffering effect for those workers who detached during off-work hours.
  4. Job performance areas including task performance and proactive work behaviors reflect the beneficial effects of psychological detachment during off-work hours.  Research has also shown that in some instances, job performance can suffer if the worker detaches too much.

Individual differences and work-related situational variables account for differences in the degrees to which detachment during off-work hours occurs.  Certain things support detachment.  Other things hinder detachment.  People who have a high level of a personality trait for generally reacting more negatively to negative events tend to detach less from work.  Research has also shown that people whose jobs play a central role in their lives, i.e. have a high level of job involvement, report lower levels of psychological detachment.  Work-related factors play a role in addition to individual differences.  Job stressors, including heavy workload and high time pressure are the strongest predictors of low detachment from work according to the reviewer.  People who have more work than they feel that they can accomplish during the work-day switch off less while at home.  A number of studies show the link between heavy workloads and high time pressures and low detachment.

Job stressors impact well-being in at least two ways.  The stress from the initial exposure needs little explanation.  But, prolonged mental activation after the initial exposure leads to health impairments over the long term.  A recent study of dental health workers showed that the impaired ability to psychologically detach during off-job hours got reflected in high fatigue six months later.  Recovery and recuperation are most critical when job stressors are highest.  This makes mental disengagement most difficult.  This further decreases the likelihood of recovery and recuperation.  According to the reviewer, this is “a situation that might lead to a downward spiral in which job stressors lead to increasingly severe symptoms of strain when people are unable to experience even temporary detachment from work.”

Finally, what you do and where plays an important role in the degree of psychological detachment from work.  Meaningful activities, like volunteer work, help people detach.  Also, the environment plays an important role.  According to some research, the most important aspect of the restorative environment is “fascination”.  An environment rich in “soft stimuli” affords the best opportunities for  a person to experience the “effortless attention” needed for restoration and recovery from work.  Researchers found this piece of the psychological detachment puzzle over twenty years ago.

Past research has shown that job stressors, failure to detach from work during leisure time, and poor well-being have a close relationship.  Several questions about many issues, such as the nature and extent of detriment related to failure to detach across many work situations and buffering factors, remain open.  Also, research has not explicitly addressed causality.  Finally, the relationship between psychological detachment and nontraditional work roles needs study.

The practical implications of the research gathered, reviewed, and synthesized by the author, show the importance of this concept for life, work, and organizations:

  • Workers benefit from psychologically detaching – “switching off” – from work during off-job time;
  • Clear physical and mental boundaries between work and non-work life provide the best pathway to psychological detachment;
  • Job workloads and time pressures should not hinder the worker from completing job tasks to completion before leaving the workplace at the end of the workday;
  • Workers who escape to restorative environments after work will have the best rest, recovery, and recuperation from work;
  • Workers who participate in meaningful off-job activities should experience higher degrees of detachment;
  • Organizations must address job stressors of heavy workload and time pressures for the sake of their employees’ well-being and organizational success;
  • Employees should receive clear communication from their organization which encourages “switching off’ from work while at home;
  • Firm policies should spell out that “24/7” availability does not define a committed worker and high performing workforce.

Take home message to managing partners and practice group leaders:  “Empirical research has shown that employees who experience more detachment from work during off-hours are more satisfied with their lives and experience fewer symptoms of psychological strain, without being less engaged at work.”

Source:  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 DOI: 10.1177/0963721411434979.

Image Sources:  On/Off:  Tobia Crivellari at see here.  Downward spiral:  see here.

Thank you. Please visit again soon. See you next time. Dan DeFoe JD MS – Adlitem Solutions | Organization Development for Professional Services Firms and the Legal Profession: People. Projects. Practices | www.adlitemsolutions.com | dan@adlitemsolutions.com | Blog www.psycholawlogy.com.

Law Firms and Lawyers.  Adlitem Solutions specializes in providing custom organization development interventions for lawyers, law firms, and other professional service providers and their organizations.  Adlitem Solutions utilizes normal personality and emotional intelligence assessments to craft solution strategies and interventions uniquely tailored to meet the needs of your people, teams, and organization.  Managing partners and career/professional development directors or officers have important choices to make.  These choices impact individual well-being and organization success. Let Adlitem Solutions help you and your firm become informed consumers about emotional intelligence and normal personality assessments so that you can see through the fog, and make reasoned decisions most appropriate for you and your organization.

Dan DeFoe

Owner and Lead consultant at Adlitem Solutions
I'm an attorney with 20+ years of experience and have an MS degree in organizational development psychology. I provide normal personality and emotional intelligence assessments, assessment interpretation and feedback, and professional development planning and training activities for lawyers, judges, other legal services providers, and their organizations.

3 Responses to Psychological Detachment – The Importance and Benefits of Mentally “Switching Off” From Work During Leisure Time

  1. Ashley says:

    Stress and emotions can tie very closely when it comes to being in your work place. Emotions have can have a great impact at work when it comes to rational decision making and purposeful behavior. It is important to not be too consumed in work and take a break for many reasons, such as causing potential stressors to your life. I very much agree and find it not too surprising when the article states “Workers who detach from their jobs after work have higher psychological well-being.” Your mind needs to take a break sometimes so you can be relieved from stress. At the same time i find it interesting how you can become also stressed from being unemployed. It seems like you have to find a balance between the two, called homeostasis which is an optimal internal balance. You must have a job but know how to manage your work load.

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