Long reads

How to switch off completely from work

25 Apr 2019 By Maggie Baska

Free colouring books are one thing. But helping employees really disengage from the daily grind requires deeper interventions, according to the experts

If you’re having trouble unplugging from work at the end of the day, you’re not alone. Recent research by the University of the West of England found many train travellers now consider their commute as time to catch up with work, before or after their traditional working day. 

Employees reported using free wifi to stay in touch with work, answering emails or inputting into projects while travelling to and from the office. 

It’s yet another example of how an ‘always on’ mentality, while empowering more flexible working methods, comes with a significant downside. A 2018 CIPD survey found more than half (55 per cent) of workers felt under excessive pressure and were regularly exhausted or miserable, in contrast to 30 per cent who said they were often or always full of energy in the workplace. 

Encouraging people to step away from work – whether it’s by banning email outside office hours, or nudging people towards healthier behaviours during the day – is vital to encouraging good mental health, experts agree. People Management asked them which strategies really delivered.

Make lunch more attractive

Taking scheduled breaks, most notably lunch, is the cornerstone of switching off, says Dr Luke James from Bupa UK, and is linked to increased concentration and efficiency during the rest of the working day. “Organising team activities, like walks or lunchtime picnics, can be a great way to make sure everyone spends time away from their desks, bonds socially and engages in physical activity,” says James.

Zoe Easey, director of digital creative agency Epix Media, takes a low-tech route to encouraging staff to take breaks – putting a pack of Uno cards on the lunch table. She says getting people away from their desks during lunchtime is the hardest part, particularly when they are busy, but visual stimuli can help.

“The team now have lunch together every day, which has been great for our studio culture and morale,” Easey says. 

Turn technology to your advantage

Individuals can become overburdened with work and hesitant to turn off their electronic devices after office hours, says author and business coach Ruth Kudzi. But there are ways to allow workers to disconnect by automatically declining invitations to work outside normal hours. 

“I encourage people to map and identify what their ‘perfect week’ would be either on their calendar app or a physical schedule,” Kudzi says. “I tell them to block out the times they aren’t available. It’s about enforcing boundaries and giving yourself the flexibility to say ‘no’ because you have already scheduled that time to be away.” 

Google Calendar allows workers to set “work hours”. If someone tries to schedule a meeting outside these hours, they are informed the person may not be available and meetings may be auto-declined. There are also apps which can silence notifications during set hours, eliminating the temptation to check emails outside the office. 

Practise empathy and mindfulness 

Mindfulness in the workplace has been popularised by businesses such as Google, but plenty of others are also finding it can help bolster staff wellbeing. 

Federica Cinosi, psychologist and director of corporate wellbeing consultancy EidynWell, says offering meditation sessions can help employees manage strains. 

And it’s not just about the more organised end of the market. Just taking time for conversation at work can be beneficial. “Empathy is a key skill in people managers, which can truly make a difference in the quality of professional life,” Cinosi says. She adds that taking the time to know your staff, find out what triggers their stress, and encouraging burdened individuals to take breaks can help everyone’s wellbeing. 

Reward the right behaviours

Richard Hanwell, associate director of recruitment agency The Sterling Choice, says that when a high-performing employee identified he was getting burned out, the business offered him a six-week sabbatical so he could fully disconnect. 

“We explored what he wanted to achieve from any potential break and came to the conclusion that two weeks’ annual leave wasn’t going to cut it, so we agreed on a far lengthier period of paid leave to do whatever he wanted,” Hanwell says. It signalled the business was willing to seriously invest in wellbeing.

Meanwhile, at bicycle manufacturer Specialized, employees who go training or cycling during their lunch break can enjoy an hour and a half away from work rather than the standard hour.  

Turn learning into a break

Giving staff the opportunity to learn something new could be a great way to encourage them to step away from work while also bolstering L&D. 

Sophie Taylor, global digital marketing executive for sustainability consultancy Anthesis Group, says the company runs educational sessions every Thursday. Colleagues from across the business talk about their work, educate people on their area of expertise or help others with a key business skill. 

“The sessions are offered live and also streamed online, allowing colleagues to participate in collaborative learning and take a break from their day-to-day schedule,” Taylor says. 

‘Nudge’ employees to disconnect 

Google utilises nudge theory – the science behind subtly influencing people into certain ‘right’ behaviours – to lead employees into switching off, in the form of its ‘One Simple Thing’ programme of personal goal-setting.

Employees are encouraged to set a goal for their personal life and share it with their manager, whether it’s booking a dream holiday or committing to take more exercise. The idea is for both parties to work to make sure the goal becomes reality and lack of work-life balance doesn’t get in the way – and if managers hold their employees accountable for personal goals in the same way they do work targets, everyone wins.

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