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James Hewitt
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Why is it so hard to switch off?

For most people, the majority of the day is filled with work, and we spend more time interacting with colleagues than friends or family. Often, our work does not have a definite start and endpoint, so it’s no wonder that we think about work in our leisure time, too. It can feel like we are always on. While there are different types of thinking about work and, as you’ve probably experienced, it’s not necessarily all bad, many of us struggle to switch off when we want to. Read on to discover the three types of ‘work-related thinking’ how to measure this, and find out what you can do to get better at switching off.

We Need To Consider Psychological & Physiological Load

My fascination with the workplace was sparked nearly a decade ago, by my clients. At the time, I was working with enthusiastic amateur cyclists, most of whom had very demanding professional careers. I noticed a repeating pattern. Despite there being no apparent cause, based on their training data, a client would unexpectedly struggle to complete a session, which they would usually finish without any difficulty. I was intrigued, so I started to dig a little deeper.

I observed that variations in their workdays were having a significant impact on their physical performance. However, it wasn’t just a matter of how long they worked – it often related to their feelings of stress and being unable to switch off from work to focus on the training session. I began to appreciate the importance of considering both psychological load and physical load, and eventually focussed my career on trying to measure working life and understand how we can make it more sustainable.

Our Ability To Work Anywhere, Anytime, Can Be Both Helpful & Harmful

We check our smartphones within minutes of waking up in the morning, rarely spend more than a few minutes without using some form of communication tool and we probably can’t even watch an episode on Netflix without switching between that big screen, our smart-phone and tablet, for the duration of the show. There’s a temptation to conclude that this all must be really bad for us, but it’s not that simple. We don’t have enough research to draw a firm conclusion, at this time. However, it seems clear that our ability to work anywhere, anytime, can be both helpful and harmful.

Sometimes Thinking About Work Can Be Energising, Sometimes Not…

Thinking about work-related issues outside of work is perfectly normal. Sometimes it’s fun to remember things that went well – maybe a useful contribution we made in a meeting or closing a deal. The sense of fast-paced progress that is facilitated by continuous connectivity can also feel energising and exciting. However, at other times thinking about work and the relentless buzz of our smartphone can become a source of stress; reducing recovery and interfering with our sleep. You’re probably aware of the difference, but sometimes I think it can be helpful to use tools to measure our perception of an experience, as a way to get an external perspective, and also track changes over time.

Measuring Different Types Of Thinking About Work

In 2012, Professor Mark Cropley and a group of researchers developed a survey to measure different types of thinking about work, sometimes called the ‘Work-related thoughts’ questionnaire. The questionnaire identified three types of thinkers:

  1. Affective ruminators: Affective ruminators often find it difficult to switch off emotionally from work-related thoughts. They may become tense and frustrated because they cannot stop thinking about work.
  2. Problem-solving ponderers: Problem-solving ponderers think about and ponder on work-related issues when they are not at work. This may be because they enjoy their work and the mental challenges work gives them.
  3. Detachers: Detachers tend to switch off very quickly after they leave work.

 

I’ve included the questionnaire below. You can try it out, to get an idea of the types of work-related thinking you are most predisposed to. Answer the questions, then add up your score for each of the three types of thinker respectively (the items are colour coded). Note that the scoring for question 6 is reversed. Each score can be expressed as either low, median or high. You’ll get a sense of which kind of thinking you express most.

Why Is It So Hard To Switch Off?

There are many reasons that it can feel hard to switch off from work. Some of the most obvious are external. As I mentioned earlier, having our smartphones with us throughout our waking hours can make it difficult ever to feel like we can get away, and some workplace cultures actively encourage and celebrate their employees being ‘always on’. However, some internal drivers also make it difficult to switch off:

  1. When engagement becomes an obsession (see my earlier blog on obsessive vs harmonious passion)
  2. Unhelpful beliefs (e.g. that you can’t be successful if you leave work on time)
  3. Perfectionism (e.g. when the myth that we can achieve 100% every time leads us to set unrealistic targets).
  4. Destructive self-criticism (e.g. when realistic self-evaluation shifts into us beating ourselves up).
  5. Fatalism (e.g. when we stop believing it can ever get better).

So How Do You Get Better At Switching Off?

Whether it is internal or external factors holding us back (and it’s likely a combination of the two), we can all get better at switching off.

If you’re interested in reading more, I recommend Professor Cropley’s book, ‘The Off Switch’. You can find out more about it, here. It’s a short read, with some great ideas about how you can get better at switching off from work.

In the meantime, I encourage you to try out some of the ideas for switching off. Perhaps take the survey, try out an idea for a couple of weeks, then repeat it again, to see if anything has changed. I’m interested to hear how you get on!

References

  • Cropley M, Michalianou G, Pravettoni G, Millward LJ. (2012) The relation of post-work ruminative thinking with eating behaviour. Stress Heal. 28(1):23–30.
  • Cropley, M. (2012) The Off Switch. Virgin Books.

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