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How to Avoid Being Overworked by Unplugging from the Office

Many (many) years ago when I was still in college, a program called Leisure Studies was housed in the same building as many of my other classes. I remember asking one of the professors one day what Leisure Studies was. I was told that the concept of leisure was a relatively old idea and needed to be studied, investigated and quantified because predictions were that computers would do more and more of our work. Not having as much work to do would create a leisured society and we needed to study and prepare for this.

While writing this blog, I did a little research and found the April 2, 1965, cover story of Time Magazine reported something similar. Way back in 1965, Time Magazine was reporting that computers were going to take over more and more work, and ultimately produce what was called a “leisure class.” Fast forward to 2015. Time Magazine revisited their own story from 1965. The revisit produced a not-so-surprising quote that, “In fact, as a whole, Americans are working more than we were before computers came along to help out.” Apparently, the “leisure class” never really developed.

But you and I already know that.

Working "Overtime" to Keep Up

Computers have not reduced the amount of work we are doing at all. In fact, many of us are working more hours per day than we probably ever thought we would. In some professions, the expectations are actually increasing with regard to time spent either at work or on work-related issues. Laptops, phones, and tablets all make it possible to work from virtually anywhere. So many of us are working after work, just to keep up with the demands of our jobs.

For the hourly employee, there are some protections regarding working after work. There is typically a requirement to clock in and clock out from work, and likely not being allowed to work more than 40 hours a week unless overtime is approved. For the salaried employee in some industries, however, the expectation to work more than 40 hours per week is a given. Working after work has become the norm.

Staying Tethered to Work

What mental health care providers are hearing is that salaried employees are tethered to their work and work-related issues because of technology (phones, tablets, laptops, etc.), well beyond the traditional workday of eight hours (sometimes into the wee hours of the morning.) We probably all know individuals or perhaps we are those individuals who are driving to work, picking up kids from soccer, or are on the way to a movie with a spouse but still taking calls, returning emails or texting someone about a work-related issue; and let’s not overlook that some take their devices on vacation just so they can stay on top of things at the office.

We all hear that parents need to monitor and set boundaries regarding their children’s use of technology. Turning devices off an hour before bed is often recommended for kids to help them prepare for recuperative sleep. Kids who get the right kind of sleep do better in school, have a more stable mood, and are able to think more clearly. Not surprisingly, this is true for adults too.

How to Unplug from Work

So what do we do? Here are just a few ideas:

  1. Turn your device off and read a book, play with your dog, listen to your child, make goo-goo eyes at your spouse.
  2. Schedule “timeouts” with your phone. No, your phone didn’t do anything wrong and you’re not punishing it. But, if you turn it off about 2 hours before bedtime you give yourself a chance to unwind, feel calmer, and be more present with yourself and those you love. You’ll sleep better, too!
  3. Speaking of sleep, keep the phone off all night. I know it’s hard, but you can do this. You’ll actually sleep better and have better energy for the next day.
  4. Have a “no phones” policy at the dinner table.
  5. Use your smartphone’s calendar to schedule a reminder to turn devices off.
  6. Download an app that locks you out of Facebook or other social media for a set period of time.
  7. Consider letting calls go to voicemail.
  8. Consider an “out of office” reply for emails after 5 pm.
  9. Send a thank you note by “snail mail” rather than an email. Yes, it does take a little more time and effort. That’s why it’s so cool!
  10. Leave your phone at home – I know … this one is really hard. But give it a try!

Clearly, these are just ideas and everyone has to determine what is right for them, their situation, and their lifestyle. The challenge for many of us is to recognize that unplugging from work in order to get real rest, real down time, real balance, may require us to unplug from our devices – even if it’s just for a little while.

Karen Williams, LIMHP
Karen Williams, LIMHP

Karen Williams, LIMHP is a Mental Health provider at CHI Health.

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