In an ‘always on’ work culture, we’ve forgotten how to switch off

The blurred lines of home and office have made it harder for us to disconnect. Shelly Madden explores our ties to work and finds out how to switch off successfully.

Personal Growth

No time for time off? We’ve all been there. Sometimes even the admin of taking time off – like creating a handover document or an out-of-office email – just causes anxiety because you’ve so much to do already.

Work-life balance is a buzz-phrase that has been thrown around a lot, but you do need to create a boundary or you run the risk of burning out. The trouble is it’s becoming harder for us to detach from our desks.

France, famous for its strict labour laws, pioneered the right to disconnect in Europe in 2016. At the time, French politician Benoit Hamon explained why the law was necessary: “Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash – like a dog.”

In 2021, the Irish government followed suit and introduced the Code of Practice on the Right to Disconnect, which enshrined employees’ right not to respond to emails, calls or messages outside working hours.

Our right to disconnect is protected by law – so why do we still find it so difficult?

Why it’s so hard to switch off

Quite simply, people have too much on their plate. PwC’s 2023 Hopes and Fears Workforce Survey found that 23% of Irish workers feel overworked. And thanks to the recent spate of mass layoffs, many employees are struggling to tackle the new responsibilities that have been foisted upon them, with no sign of incoming reinforcements. The added fear that they might join their former colleagues in redundancy can also discourage people from dropping tasks or taking time off.

The rise of remote work has also blurred the lines between home and office, making the “electronic leash” feel all the more tight. This ‘always on’ feeling was recently noted in a Workhuman survey of Irish employees, with 53% of remote workers saying they struggle to disconnect after the workday.

You’d never go back into the office to read a DM but it’s all too easy to re-open the laptop to check something in your off-hours. Just like we scroll social feeds mindlessly on our phones, we may also find ourselves automatically refreshing our work apps to make sure we’re not missing anything. What’s one more email while you’re having dinner?

By giving into this urge, we feed the nagging feeling that we’ve forgotten something. Burnout coach Jacquie Branagan explains: “Fear of missing out (FOMO) and stress over missing important communications or even opportunities can keep people still logged into work and unable to fully relax.”

When we remain in a stressed state from Monday to Friday, it’s no wonder our body struggles to switch off. Dr SaraLou Wiley, a GP and life coach, says “our nervous systems accept this ‘high stress’ state as the norm and so, when we try to slow down, the ‘rest’ state can actually feel like a threat to us”. This can help to explain why so many of us get sick on our days off. (No, it’s not just you. In fact there are a number of catchy names for this phenomenon: ‘Saturday syndrome’, ‘leisure sickness’ and the ‘let-down effect’.)

SaraLou adds that slowing down can feel like a failure – something that women may already be conscious about in the corporate world where late nights are lauded and requests for flexibility can lead to conflict.

How to get better at switching off

Learning how to properly switch off is not just about regaining your social life. Reducing your stress levels can in turn reduce your risk of heart disease and high blood pressure, as well as lead to better sleep. So, how do you do it?

Prof Mark Cropley, author of The Off Switch, recommends an “unwinding ritual” at the end of your workday. Rather than starting a big task late in the day, and then feeling unfinished when you have to drop it at 5pm, you should set aside the last 20 minutes of your day for menial tasks, such as tidying your desk.

If you’re planning a longer break away from work, Jacquie recommends turning technology from foe into friend: “Remember to set out-of-office replies to emails and a voicemail stating your absence and return dates. You can also use the ‘Do Not Disturb’ function on your mobile phone to limit availability or stop certain numbers from contacting you while you are away.”

SaraLou suggests turning off phone notifications altogether when at home. “Instead, set aside a time each day to look and act on what needs your attention, and the rest of the time allow yourself to be where you are … and enjoy the moment.” This way, you train yourself to only look at your phone when you need to, not when a ping dictates it.

Rather than switching off completely, you could also try to reframe it as switching modes, as proposed by Reb Rebele in Psychology Today. While you might be fully ‘on’ in work mode and fully ‘off’ in relaxation mode, you can have some in-between modes for socialising or learning a new skill.

For more resources on switching off, check out dara & co’s burnout masterclass and our upcoming event, An Introduction to Meditation, on 16 May.

Shelly Madden
Shelly is an experienced writer, editor, content manager and Wordler who has covered everything from tech to tiny woodland creatures. Based in Galway, her hobbies include sea swimming, crosswords and agonising over whether or not to use a hyphen.

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