Unplugging from work
Last month, I was at a work conference with several colleagues. Every 15 minutes they were checking their phones for work email messages and tapping out responses. They were at a compelling and engaging meeting, but a big piece of their mind was back at the office.
Is this the price of modern working life? Once our smartphones are configured to receive work email, we are notified when incoming messages arrive, and we are seduced into reading and responding to them. It’s hard to ignore that telltale tone.
Several years ago, my workplace took back the phones they issued to administrators and providers. They had paid for these phones, which included work email, and when I had one, I was like everyone else—I spent a lot of off-work time reading and answering emails.
But when I did buy my own cell phone, I decided not to install work email. I realized that I was no different than anyone else—if it was there, I would read and respond. I figured if there was an emergency, they could always call me. Needless to say, I have received precious few telephone calls from work when I was home.
Why is unplugging from work so important?
It turns out that we are much more creative, productive, and engaged when we have regular time away from work—and that means totally unplugged. The CEO of Aetna, after a serious ski accident, struggled with chronic pain. He found that meditation and yoga made a huge impact on his wellbeing. He made meditation training and time to meditate widely available to employees on a daily basis. In a follow-up study of 1000 Aetna employees who participated in this program, participants had close to an hour a week of increased productivity. There was also a reduction in health care spending for these employees. They reported greater well-being.
Regular time-off allows our brains to restore our concentration and attention, which is a critical function when it comes to both work and family. It also allows our minds to imagine, consider, and ponder, without focus—an essential component for creativity and innovation.
There are many reasons why modern workers respond 24/7 to their work email that pops up on their smartphone. Our culture values “busyness”—busy people have more status and prestige. If you are not constantly occupied, even overwhelmed by all you have to do, it signifies to others that you’re not important or working hard.
But does busyness actually improve work performance? A recent study found that employees who reported greater “telepressure” had more absenteeism, more physical complaints, and reported worse sleep than their less pressured peers. Being responsive after work hours doesn’t mean that an employee is more productive, creative, or effective.
While longer vacations are important for adults to refresh themselves, some studies indicate that the beneficial effects are short lived. After a 7 to 10-day vacation, employees felt refreshed and renewed. But sadly, this feeling was short-lived. We have all experienced the crash of re-entry after a satisfying, relaxing vacation.
So what can we do to stay fresh, creative, and relaxed?
- Take a daily tranquility break. Take a 30-minute lunch break (that is not a crime, by the way!) and go for a walk, close your eyes, pray, meditate, read a novel, or stretch. Regular breaks actually help you get more done than staying chained to your desk 8 hours straight.
- Unplug from work. At least turn off your email for lengthy periods of time when you’re off. If you respond to every message that comes your way, others will start to expect that from you. Smell the roses and turn off your phone.
- Find ways of destressing on a regular basis. Don’t wait for vacation! Find time to unplug, de-stress, and relax and refresh on a weekly basis.