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When “switching off” doesn't work

Last updated on 
July 21, 2020

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In our fast-paced, “always on” digital culture, being able to switch off is seen as a luxury. Putting your phone away, turning off notifications, and being present in our free time are all things we feel we “should” do – and for good reason. Research shows always being switched on strongly interferes with our work/life balance and contributes to stress and anxiety. But in practice, switching off isn’t always a positive or viable option. So how can we navigate our life with tech in a way that’s best for our health?

“Always on” culture

Perhaps more than any other factor, digital connection has changed the way we live. Information is available with the press of a button. Our smartphones are always within reach – and almost always on. We’re constantly available to others, constantly connected. The benefits of this are obvious, but we’ve only recently become fully conscious of the perils of being “always on”. And with millions of people currently working from home, the boundaries between work and life are even more blurred, and the problem has got even bigger.

Many of us use our phones for both our professional and personal lives, which means “urgent” work notifications easily slip into the time when we’re meant to be relaxing, disturbing our downtime and making it impossible to unwind. Never getting any real respite from work can mentally exhaust us (and test our personal relationships), but the more always-on culture becomes normalized, the harder it is to take a stand and actually switch off. If you’ve ever replied to work emails on vacation or the weekend, just to show your commitment, you’ve participated in this pressure.

So of course, switching off is a good thing. It should be encouraged – but perhaps it shouldn’t be forced. Some companies have banned out-of-hours email in an attempt to help their employees switch off, and while this was seen as a positive by many, in some cases these types of blanket bans do more harm than good. They can actually have the opposite of the intended effect, and cause employees to feel more stressed and anxious, not less.

When switching off backfires

It’s important to remember that we’re all different, and our personality types affect the ways we want to work. A 2019 study by the Myers-Briggs Company found that 10% of respondents actually liked feeling “always on”. They believed it helped them stay up to date and get timely responses – plus they felt it offered them more flexibility in terms of where and when they worked. Respondents able to access work communication outside of office hours also reported stronger job satisfaction and engagement levels.

Acts like banning out-of-hours work communication might be rooted in good intention, but they also remove any sense of professional autonomy. Telling employees they’re not allowed to send a work email on the weekend, even if they genuinely want to, can be seen as a paternalistic, near draconian attempt to govern others. It ignores the fact that we’re all individuals who enjoy working in different ways, and as adults, we should be trusted to work in the ways we believe are best.

While insisting employees switch off out-of-hours is done with the aim of reducing stress and improving work/life balance, it’s crucial to recognize the fact that for some people, it has the opposite effect. A study by the University of Sussex found that people who have "high levels of anxiety and neuroticism" want to reply to emails whenever they like, whether it’s in their own time or not. Not being able to do so can make them feel out of control and actually enhance their stress and anxiety levels.

Switching off in a way that suits you

When looking at switching off strategies that are healthy for everyone, we need to accept that the “on”/“off” binary isn’t always useful. For better or worse, tech is now entwined with our lives, so rather than shouldering top-down restrictions, employees should be encouraged to take the steps they personally believe are necessary to minimize the worst aspects of always-on culture.

Set individual boundaries

One of the most important things you can do is create your own boundaries. For every person who enjoys always feeling switched on, there are many more who don’t. The survey by Myer-Briggs found that a third of respondents felt they couldn’t switch off, and more than a quarter felt their always-on culture was harming their personal lives. These people should be encouraged to set their own personal boundaries and stick to them.

Aside from setting limits around how you use your devices out-of-hours, that includes managing colleague expectations – so if they send a message after a certain time, they shouldn’t expect a reply until the following day. If you do want to maintain some connection, set clear times for checking your phone and dealing with any questions, so you don’t get sucked in or end up grazing away your downtime.  

✅ Ways to separate work and personal time

Consider your communication

Out-of-hours work tends to center around communication, but a lot of it could actually be avoided with a more deliberate, direct and intentional approach to interaction. Now more of us are working remotely, it’s more important than ever that we don’t get bogged down with unnecessary asynchronous communication.

Async working is meant to make things easier for us, not harder, and it certainly shouldn’t increase the amount of messages we have to read and reply to. Before sending any message, always ask yourself if it’s truly necessary or if it might be better answered in another forum. If it’s not, don’t send it.

📣 How to become a better remote communicator

Ask more of your managers

Managers have a huge responsibility to weed out dangerous or toxic elements of company culture. Aside from creating and communicating company policies to protect against these, their example can directly set the tone for employee behavior. Managers who send a continual flurry of questions and messages make it seem like appropriate behavior. Similarly, sending emails during evenings, weekends or while on vacation sets an expectation that employees feel pressure to follow.

While managers shouldn’t “ban” employees from maintaining some connection out-of-hours, they should always make it crystal clear this is not expected – and certainly not desired. If you feel management has some work to do here, be honest about it with your boss in your one-to-one meetings and urge the company to create a forum for ongoing anonymous feedback.

✚ 21 ways to improve your digital health

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