Let Me Be: Why People and Businesses Should Prioritize Work-Life Boundaries and How to Implement Them

  1. Detachment from work is an important component required for rest and recovery from work and yet many organizations are failing to provide their people with work experiences that take this key variable into account.
  2. Detachment is positively related to recovery, mental and physical health, wellbeing, having access to job resources, and task performance on-the-job.
  3. Detachment is negatively related to job demands, engagement in work activity during non-work hours, and trait negative affectivity/neuroticism – more negative personality traits that are believed to drive people’s stress and emotional reactivity.
  4. Organizations can do better to prioritize detachment and design jobs and work cultures that provide healthy expectations regarding workload, work detachment, and recovery from work (for example, by crafting jobs lower in demands and expectations or by offering more support and other resources).

Humanity’s most recent mass migration to remote work has come with its own set of pros and cons. Although meta-analyses have shown remote work to generally be associated with positive (and few negative) outcomes (Gajendran, Javalagi, Wang, & Ponnapalli, 2021), there is good evidence to suggest that people generally work more and work harder when working remotely. There is sometimes a blurring of boundaries between work and personal life that can make people feel as though they have no time to switch off long enough to receive the rest and recovery that people naturally require to maintain their performance or wellness.

Detachment from work has been found to be an important component of the work experience that takes place outside of working hours that helps people to actively recover from the myriad of demands of work-life. A meta-analysis conducted by Johannes Wendsche and Andrea Lohmann-Haislah (2017) examined both the core factors that facilitate detachment from work as well as the various outcomes of detachment from work. Their research included data from 91 independent study samples and nearly 40,000 employee participants giving us a highly informative dataset that allows us to better understand the correlates of detachment from work.

Why should you care… What are the outcomes of detachment from work?

The study found that detachment from work is positively linked to experienced recovery, mental and physical health and overall wellbeing as well as facilitators of wellbeing and health like sleep and feeling rested. For example, the researchers found that when people tended to detach less from their work, they tended to be more fatigued and also tended to get less sleep (and vice versa). Sleep deprivation and fatigue alone have been shown to be linked to a slew of negative work-relevant outcomes including declining productivity, inhibited cognitive processing, and increases in unintended costly outcomes and organizational risks like accidents on-the-job (Walker, 2018).

The researchers also found that detachment may have an interesting but complex relationship with performance in the sense that detachment from work seems to have a small positive link with task performance on the job. However, the time people spend detaching from work may be borrowed from the time people often spend on optional work tasks (commonly performed when overworking).  For example, the researchers found that detachment from work was negatively associated with free time spent on organizational tasks like time spent optionally providing support to the organization and their coworkers (known as organizational citizenship behaviours) and time spent engaging in ideation and innovation. But time is a finite resource and the time that we spend detaching has to come from somewhere. Generally speaking, the upsides are great, and the downsides seem to be small and few.

There are even ways to minimize negative repercussions. Organizations seeking to reap the benefits of detachment from work while mitigating the costs would likely benefit from giving people some dedicated time to pursue such tasks as innovation or providing support to colleagues during their dedicated worktime rather than fostering contextual conditions that motivate people to engage in these sorts of tasks, like support and ideation, after all of their more specifically stated job duties have been completed for the day. This may necessitate other changes, like incorporating these sorts of tasks (like innovation, ideation, and non-job-specified support) into their performance appraisal as well to ensure that you’re rewarding the full range of behaviours that you want and expect to see people perform in their roles.

Which factors facilitate and which factors impede detachment from work?

Wendsche and Lohmann-Haislah found several key factors that encourage and facilitate detachment from work. Thankfully, some of them are able to be modified by organizations and the people that comprise them to positively impact people’s work and lives. For example, they found that the higher one’s job demands are, the less likely people are to disengage from work. Conversely, the higher one’s job resources are the more likely people are to detach from their work. By redesigning jobs and organizational cultures to be more reasonably demanding and to provide a surplus of support, you may be able to give people the work context that they need to prioritize and take some much-needed R&R. Keep in mind that people are generally much better performers if they’ve had their needs met. Not only is it the right thing to do, but investing in your people’s rest and recovery is likely to yield notable returns.

Other factors may have more to do with the people themselves rather than the job or the work itself. For example, this research revealed that someone with higher levels of specific personality traits like the Big Five personality trait neuroticism may be more likely to struggle to detach from work. Neuroticism is a personality trait that measures a tendency for people to be quicker to rouse and slow to relax from such arousal and a disposition to struggle with things like stress, self-regulation and -control. It may be possible for leaders and managers to try to help interested parties to work to reduce negative affectivity/neuroticism. One six-year long randomized control trial showed this may be possible through interventions like those found in mindfulness-based stress reduction programs (Hanley, de Vibe, Solhaug, Gonzalez-Pons, & Garland, 2019). However, personality traits are generally resistant to change. Furthermore, it’s a rather steep and ethically questionable ask for an employer to require (or even ask) an employee if they would change the fundamental properties of who they are to benefit the company.

Thankfully, there are more ethical ways to make use of this information than conforming people to a prescribed ideal. By knowing the people who work within your organization you can specifically target these individuals to provide them with additional encouragement, support, and resources that may help them to proactively acknowledge their neurotic tendencies and behaviours and motivate them to make concerted and deliberate efforts to nevertheless switch off and take some much-needed recover time. This underscores the value of using reliable and validated personality assessments (like the Big Five and HEXACO) as these tools are able to greatly streamline the process of effectively learning about individual employees in such a precise manner and in a way that scales with strategic initiatives (like targeted encouragement and resource allocation).

Other factors still, fall somewhere between organizational and personal factors. For example, people who tend to place all their eggs in one basket, investing heavily in their work rather than in other domains of life (commonly referred to as having a high degree of work centrality) tend to struggle with detachment from work as well. However, there’s likely a big difference between a person who deliberately chooses to make their work the most central part of their identity relative to someone who is dependent on a job that has extremely high job demands and is offered few if any of the necessary support and resources to meet these demands, thereby necessitating they stretch themselves thin. The effective strategies deployed to tackle each of these different circumstances are also quite different. Organizations and their leaders would do well to do some internal auditing to see how well they’re meeting the needs of their employees. Employees working under the tragic circumstances exemplified by the given example would do well to communicate their needs to their coworkers and leaders and (baring a persistent lack of support) would likely do well to form a plan and execute a path to better stable employment opportunities as quickly and safely as possible.

Take-aways for you and your practice

To take advantage of these findings, organizations can implement policies that promote detachment from work providing support and resources to help employees manage their job demands. Leaders and managers can create an environment in which job demands are minimized, job resources are maximized, and negative affectivity/neuroticism is reduced. They can encourage employees to detach from work-related activities outside of work hours and create opportunities for employees to build non-work interests and engage in meaningful non-work activities. Others within the workplace can advocate for policies that promote work-life balance and detachment from work. They can take breaks during the day, make sure that their workloads are manageable, use workhours to support colleagues and innovate, and take time off (while actively disconnecting from work entirely) to rest and recuperate. They can also encourage their colleagues to do the same as well as encourage the organization to provide more resources.

All changes have a period of transition and the mass migration to remote work is going to come with its own host of challenges that organizations and the people that comprise them are going to have to successfully navigate – blurred boundaries being one of them.  But by erecting more solid work-boundaries and giving people the power to detach and switch-off and ample opportunity to rest and recover, you’re more likely to side-step a potential localized burnout epidemic within your organization.

Trustworthiness score:

Cross-sectional meta-analyses can provide information about associations or links between variables, but they aren’t able to determine causation very well. Nevertheless, the trustworthiness of the study is moderate (80%). This means there is a 20% chance that alternative explanations for the effect found are possible.

Learn how we critically appraise studies to assign them a Trustworthiness Score.

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Hanley, A. W., de Vibe, M., Solhaug, I., Gonzalez-Pons, K., & Garland, E. L. (2019). Mindfulness Training Reduces Neuroticism over a 6-Year Longitudinal Randomized Control Trial in Norwegian Medical and Psychology Students. Journal of Research in Personality, 103859. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2019.103859

Gajendran, R. S., Javalagi, A., Wang, C., & Ponnapalli, A. R. (2021). Consequences of remote work use and intensity: A meta-analysis. Academy of Management Proceedings, 2021(1), 15255. https://lnkd.in/gjTVUvNd

Wendsche, J., & Lohmann-Haislah, A. (2017). A meta-analysis on antecedents and outcomes of detachment from work. Frontiers in Psychology, 7. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.02072

Walker, M. P. (2018). Why we sleep: The new science of sleep and dreams. Penguin Books.

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