Steve M Jex Ph.D.

Thriving Under Stress

The Importance of Detaching From Work

Detaching from work is one of the keys to thriving under stressful work.

Posted May 22, 2015

Typically when we hear that someone is “detached”, or is actively seeking “detachment”, this is viewed negatively.  There are, however, instances where a certain amount of detachment is a good thing; in fact, there is considerable evidence that regularly detaching from work is an important key to thriving under stressful conditions.  Before discussing the primary mechanisms by which people may be able to detach, it is important to first consider why we often don’t detach from work.  One obvious reason is technology (Park & Jex, 2012).  Today we have the capability of being in touch with the workplace 24 hours a day through e-mail and smartphones.  In many ways this technology enhances our lives, but unfortunately it also blurs the lines between work and other aspects of our lives—that is, we can never fully get away from work. Another reason, which is perhaps less obvious, is social comparison processes (Festinger, 1954).  Oftentimes we don’t detach because we don’t want to be seen as a slacker compared to other employees in our organization.  I had a student in one of my classes once describe how he worked in a large accounting firm, and at the end of the workday everyone looked at everyone else to see when they were going to leave work—nobody wanted to be the first to leave! 

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Technology is one reason why employees may not detach from work.
Source: Unsplash/Creative Commons Zero (CC0) License

So it seems that there are some real pressures on many of us not to detach from work, especially if we want to get ahead in our careers.  Consider, though, the cost of not detaching.  Research has shown that when people do not regularly detach from work, there is a very real cost in terms of the depletion of mental and physical energy (Ten Brummelhuis & Bakker, 2012).  There is also a more subtle, and perhaps in the long run a more important, cost.  When we are constantly thinking about work, checking e-mail, and taking work-related phone calls, we are really detaching from those around us, such as family and friends.  Obviously there are times when it is necessary for work to intrude on our personal lives, and most of the time important people in our lives understand, but if we constantly do this it may destroy important relationships—relationships that we may not be able to repair.  Finally, we can also look at the failure to detach from a purely economic standpoint.  Consider, for example, a person who works 5 extra hours a week checking e-mail at home.  If that person earns $10 per hour he or she is giving the employer an extra $50 per week, and over the course of a year, an extra $2,500.  In fact, working extra hours from home raises important legal questions. (This topic is explored further in a recent article from The Wall Street Journal.)

So it’s been shown that detachment from work is healthy, and one of the major keys to thriving under stressful working conditions.  So how do you detach?  Researchers have examined many strategies, including learning new things, taking up a hobby, reading for pleasure, and exercising (Sonnentag & Fritz, 2007).  Also, given the way technology often seems to tie us to work, it might be a good idea to occasionally “unplug” and get away from the electronic gadgets.  Another way to look at detachment from work is that it really involves being fully engaged in other aspects of our lives when we’re not at work.  When we’re reading a newspaper article about events in other parts of the world, really focus on the issues involved.  When we’re talking to our child about what they’re doing in school, ask them questions.

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Exercise is one strategy that can be used to detach from work.
Source: Picography/Creative Commons Zero (CC0) License

Research has also shown that a key to achieving some level of detachment from work is to manage the boundaries between work and other aspects of our lives (Kreiner, Hollensbe, & Sheep, 2009). There are many ways to do this, but probably the most effective strategy is simply to establish expectations with people when it is acceptable to cross boundaries.  Like most professors, I’m very dedicated to my students and work hard to meet their needs.  Despite this high level of dedication, my students understand that it would not be appropriate for them to call me at 9:00 PM to ask for help on a paper.  On the other hand, if one of my students had a death in their family and could not make it to their final exam the next day, calling me at home in the evening would certainly be justified.  One thing to keep in mind, though, is that boundary management can be a challenge.  As was discussed above, technology certain makes it much easier for work to intrude on our personal lives.  Also, in many professions (and academia is certainly one of them), people are often rewarded for not establishing boundaries. 

As a final thought, one of the other benefits of detachment is that it provides us with practice for the day when we permanently detach from work; that is, when we retire.  Although retirement is now voluntary in most countries, most people eventually retire.  Research on adjustment in retirement suggests that two of the strongest predictors of adjustment are financial security and health; as one might expect, those who are financially secure and healthy tend to adjust well to retirement (Jex & Grosch, 2013).  However, another factor that impacts retirement adjustment is simply whether people have something meaningful to do with their time when they retire.  Detachment helps us to find things that we like to do outside of work, so when the time comes that work is not part of our lives we can still find meaning and fulfillment.

References

Festinger, L. A. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7, 117-140.

Jex, S.M., & Grosch, J. (2013). Retirement decision making.  In M. Wang (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Retirement (pp. 267-279). New York: Oxford University Press.

Kreiner, G.E., Hollensbe, E.C., & Sheep, M.L. (2009). Balancing borders and bridges: Negotiating the work-family interface via boundary work tactics.  Academy of Management Journal, 52, 704-730.

Park, Y., & Jex, S. M. (2011). Work and home boundary management using communication and information technology. International Journal of Stress Management, 18, 133-152.

Sonnentag, S., & Fritz, C. (2007). The Recovery Experience Questionnaire: Development and validation of a measure for assessing recuperation and unwinding from work. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 12, 204-221.

Ten Brummelhuis, L.L., & Bakker, A.B. (2012). Staying engaged during the week: The effect of off-job activities on next day work engagement. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 17, 445-455.

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