New research reveals how best to switch off from work

14 December 2015 -


The blurring of work and personal life is causing many British workers to worry about their work long after they have left for home. Does new research hold the key to being able to leave those workplace worries firmly in the office?

Jermaine Haughton

The boundaries between work and personal life has seemingly never been so blurred, with almost three-quarters of workers admitting to worrying about their job responsibilities and duties on their commute home, or even while sat on the sofa.

However, new research has found that employees can switch off from the office and enjoy their free time by simply planning how to resolve incomplete work tasks before they leave the office.

Published in the Journal of Organizational and Occupational Psychology, the survey of 103 employees found that people who spent time at the end of their day planning where, when, and how they would complete these unfinished tasks were able to disengage with their jobs more effectively than workers who did not.

Conducted by psychologist Dr Brandon Smit from Ball State University, the study found most workers had more difficulty detaching from work tasks that had been left uncompleted at the end of the working day. This is exacerbated when the duties are considered important to them, such as an impending project deadline.

By writing down work goals for the following day, workers are more likely to feel relaxed and confident in finishing their required tasks. As well as impeding the satisfaction an individual can gain from their leisure and family time, lingering work concerns can be tiresome and stressful – having a significantly negative impact on an employees’ occupational health and job performance.

When setting daily work goals, employees should be encouraged to focus on smaller, concrete goals at the end of the day in order to reduce unfulfilled work goals and facilitate psychological detachment.

Dr Smit argues that intervention methods, such as creating work plans, should be targeted at specific types of employees who tend to take their work home, rather than leave it in the office.

Dr Smit said: “If you have an important deadline looming on the horizon, for example, your brain will keep nudging you with reminders, which makes it difficult to get a break from work demands. It seems like we have the ability to ‘turn off’, or at least ‘turn down’, these cognitive processes by planning where, when, and how goals will be accomplished.

“This is primarily true for people that already have a difficult time forgetting about work during leisure because their job plays a central role in their life. For them, a simple change to their work routine like task-planning near the end of the workday would likely make a real difference.”

Changes to employee working practices, such as remote and flexible working, as well as the continued development of sophisticated communication devices and software, from laptops and smartphones to Skype and instant messaging make staying in touch with the office easier than ever before.

While this may mean workers can effectively complete their work from any location, the blurring of work and personal spaces has caused many people problems with being unable to switch off from their jobs, experts say.

Professor Cary Cooper, head of organisational psychology and health at UMIST, worries people are allowing their work to encroach too far into their leisure time: “Men and women in the UK are really under a lot of pressure to give so much of their lives to work. The balance is all out of kilter and needs to change,” he said.

Here are three ways employees can wind down from a tough day in the office:

Develop an end of day unwinding ritual

Try not to leave the big, pressurised tasks for the end of the working day. Instead, spend 15 or 20 minutes winding down by occupying yourself with mundane jobs like tidying your desk and cleaning your mug.

Cut off work communications

If possible, avoid your leisure time being disrupted by colleagues, clients or customers by setting up an out-of-office email and switching off your work phone as soon as you leave work. Switch your phone off.

Develop a hobby or a distraction

Whether it’s going playing football with friends, going to the theatre or taking up life drawing, develop a hobby unconnected to your job can act as something to look forward to when you end your working day. As well as helping you to keep mentally or psychologically active, it puts those thoughts about the presentation you need to finish to the back of your mind.

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