The Unexpected Perks of Mental Disengagement

by | Jun 1, 2022 | Culture/wellbeing

Disruptions in the world around us — though at best inconvenient and at worst heart-rending — can occasionally contribute to favourable changes in the workplace culture. One such change can be observed in companies that are talking about and taking steps towards psychological safety.

The term was first explored by organisational researchers in the 1960s and has since been of research interest to those investigating team learning, innovation, job performance and growth. Psychological safety is about replacing fear with respect and compassion, but building a psychologically safe workplace — where employees trust that their vulnerabilities are welcomed and understood — requires particular dedication and skill.

Employees who feel truly psychologically safe are able to bring their whole selves to work, but then also mentally disengage at the end of their workday without taking work stress home with them in a way that affects their wellbeing. Sure, you may be caring about that new project enough to think about it while you are preparing dinner with your family, but research suggests that, while diligent, this may not be great for you.

In the late 1990s, for example, Sabine Sonnentag — an occupational health psychologist — began contemplating how people remain healthy while maintaining strong job performance. Through time, it became obvious that the answer is in how employees choose to spend their non-working hours. In particular, being able to mentally disengage from one’s work protects from work-related stress. Mental disengagement during non-working hours does not only foster wellbeing: it, paradoxically, promotes engagement during the actual working hours, too!

Talking about mental disengagement in the context of a hybrid world is inherently incongruous to its — albeit decades-old — definition that implies that one should simply not work from home. But while detaching yourself from your work may be trickier today than it was years ago when a lunch break would offer some downtime, it is still, with some commitment, possible.

How to mentally disengage when you need to

Know how your brain works

At times, we fall into the trap of feeling guilty about switching off. If we work on the basis that the right to downtime is based based on how many tasks are yet to be done, it can be hard to ever shut that computer down. In case you find yourself overwhelmed by all the unfinished tasks hanging over you, it may be helpful to learn why we tend to feel this way in the first place. When your brain receives information that you pay attention to, it moves it to short-term memory. While a lot of these memories get forgotten, our brains keep rehearsing ones that relate to unfinished tasks. This — called the Zeigarnik effect — creates underlying cognitive tension and the dreadful feeling of having too many ‘brain tabs’ open. 

A quick tip: To start closing those brain tabs – name them to tame them! As a recent study suggests, writing about your work-related worries can help “offload” them from your memory.

Know it is not all up to you

While employees have the power to use their downtime intentionally, protecting your wellbeing is not only your responsibility. That is, your immediate manager plays a vital role and the broader organisational climate is important as well. Even more so — the actual work is fundamental to how easily we disengage. Unsurprisingly, if time pressures at one’s job are on the rise, so is the number of employees who struggle with mentally disengaging in what are (supposed to be!) non-working hours. Therefore, take some time to consider whether there are any concerns you should let your manager know about. 

A quick tip: To communicate those concerns to your manager– be honest about the situation, ask for guidance, and offer solutions! For example: “It takes me twenty hours a month to prepare the full project report. What do you think about this? Should we task someone else with it?”

And if you have to think…

Think positive! No, seriously. Studies show that it is primarily the negative thinking that brings about the damaging effects of not disengaging from work after the workday. Positive thinking, on the other hand, has been found to have a beneficial impact. Thinking positively means acknowledging that work can be challenging, but choosing to move forward decisively and ask for help (or feedback!) when needed. If there is a problem, seek a solution. If there seems to be no solution, there is a lesson to be learned and appreciation that you grow through — professionally and personally — what you go through.

A quick tip: To nurture a positive mindset – reassess your thought habits and regularly practice gratitude! Challenge your perceptions and reframe your thoughts. Seek positive aspects of your work and cherish them. 


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