Switching off after work: why it’s important and how to do it

It is not unusual for people to think and reflect about work issues during their leisure time. But many individuals find they are unable to escape from their work – thinking or ruminating about work issues dominates much of their free time. This can actually be counter-productive and may also increase health risks.

Surveys have found that up to 70% of employees find it difficult to unwind after work, and worry about their job outside working hours. Our studies also show around 25% of workers report they are regular worriers, and 24% say they get annoyed because they can’t switch off post-work. Research also suggests an increase in the proportion of staff who find it difficult to unwind, and keep worrying about their job after work.

Inadequate recovery or poor disengagement from work has been associated with a number of health problems, including: cardiovascular disease, fatigue, negative mood, and sleep disturbance. One study, for instance, found men who reported an inability to relax after work had an approximately three-fold increased risk of heart disease. This suggests it may not necessarily be work demands per se that cause health problems, but the failure to adequately detach from work. So it is important for people to learn how to unwind and switch off from work during their leisure time.

Techniques for helping workers switch off and unwind post-work:

1. Finish off your work before leaving your workplace

Research on memory has revealed people are better able to remember unfinished tasks than completed ones. This phenomenon is called the Zeigarnik Effect and is often exploited by the media in cliff-hangers to keep viewers thinking about the programme until the next episode.

Similarly at work, if you don’t finish off a piece of work, it may pop into your memory even when you are well away from the workplace. Once in your thoughts you may find yourself ruminating about it, even though you may not be in a position to do anything about it.

It doesn’t necessarily need to be a piece of work – it could be an argument with a work colleague. The main issue is that it is unfinished. Therefore, you should try to finish your work before you go home. If the task is too big to complete in one day, break it into chunks and aim to get a particular chunk finished before you leave work. By doing this you are less likely to think about the project during your free time.

2. Take regular breaks and, in particular, have a lunch break away from the work station or workplace

Research has shown that people who skip meals and tea breaks also have trouble unwinding during their free time.

3. Try to avoid working during the evenings

It’s fine to occasionally work during one’s free time in order to get work completed, but constantly doing so is not actually that productive, as people tend to slow down because they become tired and fatigued. Working late in the evening also means people have less time to unwind. A lot of people report difficulty getting to sleep if they work late in the evening.

4. Try to develop a hobby to distract you from your work

Research suggests active activities involving some mental engagement work better as distractions than passive ones. But it is not clear cut – some activities, such as watching television, can be more engaging than others. The trick is to find something absorbing, preferably something you enjoy, that takes your mind off work. For some people it may be doing the crossword over a coffee or a glass of wine – for others, it could be ballroom dancing. In pursuing your hobbies, your thoughts are directed to what you are doing at that particular moment – your hobby becomes your preferred thought. It’s like a form of meditation.

5. Practice relaxing and plan to relax.

One way is to meditate, although it’s not for everyone. Meditation is really the art of mental self-control, and it’s an excellent way to gain control over your mind and thoughts. Meditation is therefore a brilliant skill to have in order to free the mind from work-related thoughts.

There are many different ways to meditate, although they all share a common premise: they are all concerned with how we are feeling inside. It’s a simple technique, but very effective. Once learnt, you can do it almost anywhere – on a bus, train, or even when you are nervously waiting to be interviewed. The more you practise, the easier it will become to relax.

Mark Cropley, reader in health psychology, University of Surrey

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