The importance of switching off

Taking time off work is important to avoid burnout. By ditching technology and planning your exit and re-entry to work, you can take some of the strain away
by Bethan Rees

1920x1056px_iStock-switch off

Burnout is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”, with characteristics such as energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, and reduced professional efficiency.

In a Huffington Post article, writer Rachel Moss refers to a survey of 2,000 people by travel company Tots to Travel, which reports that British people take on average 46 hours and 42 minutes to feel relaxed on holiday. As Moss points out, this is “a serious dent into a week-long break”, while it almost obliterates a weekend away.

Moss quotes Neil Shah, chief de-stressing officer at The Stress Management Society (“yes that is his real job title,” she says), who believes our failure to switch off has its roots in our “always-on culture”. He says: “If you are always on, you can’t just switch off when you are on holiday and tell your brain to go into relaxation mode.” He describes this as the 'Roadrunner effect' – a reference to the cartoon character that struggles to stop when running.

Here are some steps to take to help you de-stress and fully switch off.

Set the foundations

Preparing your work for your time away is a crucial step in switching off. In an article for TIME, Cassie Shortsleeve says this is an “often overlooked factor of being able to stay present while away”. Shortsleeve paraphrases David Ballard, (former) director of the office of applied psychology at the American Psychological Association, who advises that employees should consider addressing the main tasks that need to be covered in their absence and think about creating a plan for how to deal with certain scenarios if they should happen. This could help concerns with regards to things slipping through the cracks, he adds.

It’s important to consider what format your handover will take. Moss quotes Nichola Johnson-Marshall, a career coach and co-founder of consultancy firm Working Wonder, who says: “Sometimes a lengthy handover document via email doesn’t send the right message to your work colleagues, especially if you are asking them to pick up some of your tasks … Instead, ask them what works best for them.”

Disconnect from technology (if you can)

While digital technology, including smartphones, has allowed workers flexibility in doing their jobs, this has, in turn, created an inability to properly disconnect from working lives.

Some employees continue to check emails and work while on annual leave. A BBC article by Mary-Ann Russon refers to statistics from recruitment firm Glassdoor, which reports that “23% of employees who took annual leave in 2018 regularly checked emails, while 15% continued working throughout their holiday because of fear of falling behind and not hitting their targets”.

Not being able to switch off from technology can have a serious impact on an employee’s mental health. In an article for Personnel Today, Laura Willis, the co-founder of consultancy Shine Offline, refers to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development/Simplyhealth 2018 Health and well-being at work report. In the report, 87% of people say the inability to switch off had a negative impact on their wellbeing.

Willis also refers to the WHO, which in 2019 predicts that work-related stress and burnout would soon be among the world’s most prevalent diseases. Willis says that the tech-induced lack of boundaries between work and personal life are a contributing factor to this. “The psychological rest you experience during a period of annual leave simply isn’t the same if you are checking your inbox regularly either because of an expectation from your employer or a self-imposed obligation,” she writes.

Try switching off work email notifications (on your personal phone) if you can, or if you have a work phone, consider switching it off for the duration of your break or not taking it with you. If you must be in touch with your work emails (in case of emergencies), perhaps limit this to certain times of the day, for example, check once every morning, and communicate this with the people who need to know this. Plus, remember to put your out of office on. For a real ‘digital detox’, you might consider staying off all technology, even for personal use, on your break.

Re-entering work

So you’ve done your handover, but have you thought about what will happen when you return from your break? In Shortsleeve’s article, Ballard says that going back to work and feeling immediately stressed can undo the benefits of time off, so to prevent this from happening, he suggests blocking out time in your calendar to catch up on emails when you return. By building in a transition period for yourself, you can start working again at a manageable, and not overwhelming, pace.

What are your top tips for switching off? Leave your comments below.

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Published: 14 Aug 2020
  • Training, Competence and Culture
  • Soft Skills
  • handover
  • out of office
  • mental health
  • technology
  • stress
  • Career advice

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