Why is it So Hard to Unplug from Work? 4 Tips for Truly Leaving Work in the Rear View

We can all agree that unplugging from work is important. By now, we know the drill: turn off notifications, tuck phones away during family time, don’t look at your phone immediately upon waking up. Maybe you’ve even learned how to (mostly) resist the urge to send an email to your assistant outside of business hours.

And yet, 70% of professionals admit that even when they go on vacation, they don’t fully take a break from work according to a LinkedIn survey. If you can relate, you may wonder why it feels so hard to leave work behind. Let’s explore some reasons and look at what to do about the struggle to unplug.

Why is Unplugging From Work a Struggle?

We know that we need to recharge our mental batteries. So why is it so hard to unplug and more importantly, why do we not feel refreshed even when we take time away from work? Many of our beliefs about work can be traced back to the industrial revolution and the birth of the 40-hour work week.

Modern technology in the 21st century gave us the opportunity to reinvent this belief system, but not always in healthier ways. With today’s handheld and wearable devices, AI, and the cloud, the boundaries between work and personal time have blurred together. There’s no clear clock-out time anymore.

But we can’t blame our struggle to unplug on technology alone. The real pressure comes from a work culture that doesn’t respect personal time or reward those who take time off. While changes in technology offer us opportunities to do more in less time, our expectations for what we can get done in a single workday continue to outpace our output. All of this leaves us feeling constantly stressed and running behind.

Another key reason it’s so hard to unplug is a psychological phenomenon called anticipatory stress: the anxiety we feel worrying about something that is coming or could come. Here’s how it works: It’s Sunday morning and you’re about to meet friends for brunch when you get an email from your boss giving you a “heads up” about an early Monday meeting, details to follow…. Suddenly, even though you haven’t logged in to do any work, you’re anxious about what you need to do to prepare for the meeting and constantly checking your phone for updates.

Your Sunday is no longer yours. Instead of enjoying time with your friends, you’re thinking about work. You may be technically unplugged, but your brain is still working overtime. Assuming something similar happens most weekends and evenings, the strain of expectation totally disrupts your work-life balance.

Here’s the thing: truly unplugging from work takes a team effort. The good news is employees and companies are poised to shift the culture of work. Organizations can put systems in place to help individuals take action. We can all take steps to do something about our state of constant connection and support each other in unplugging in intentional ways.

Before you pack your bags this summer, check out these tips for helping yourself and your team unplug:

1. Unplug from Email with an Automatic Vacation Reply

Automatic email responders were invented to solve this problem. So, don’t be shy about using them. Set up your automatic email response to let clients know you are on vacation and ask them to contact you when you’re back in the office on a particular date (Hint: make that date a day later than the day you’re actually back in the office to help you ease back into the daily grind and prioritize). This frees you from feeling like you need to respond or even check your work email while you are out of the office.

2. Designate Someone in the Office as Point of Contact

Also, designate someone as a point of contact in the office for emergencies and add that person’s contact information to your vacation auto-reply with their permission, of course. This is not only a good way to alleviate anticipatory stress, it is an opportunity to display confidence in your colleagues and employees. Encourage your colleagues to do the same when they’re on vacation and offer to return the favor by being the designated point of contact for others.

3. Plan Ahead Whenever Possible

When you take a vacation, don’t be afraid to leave work aside. The number one reason professionals report not unplugging from work when they go away is that they don’t want to fall behind. How can you rearrange things at work before you go to make it possible to take a real break? It takes planning, but you can probably redesign your calendar around your vacation time.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Schedule down time when business is slower
  • Wrap up as many projects as possible before you leave
  • Don’t schedule start dates for new projects until after your vacation

I know what you’re thinking: emergencies always come up when I’m away. First, maybe it’s time to reconsider what counts as an emergency. But when a genuine emergency does come up have a plan in place for recruiting others in the office to put out the fire with minimal input from you.

4. Walk the Walk with Your Colleagues

Above all, treat vacation time as sacred in your office. Resist the urge to contact colleagues when they’re taking time off. Encourage employees to use all of their vacation days and to truly take a break when they’re off. When employees report not feeling like they can truly take time off, that is a huge red flag.

If the thought of changing the culture around taking time off sends chills down your spine, keep in mind that giving yourself and your team real time off will increase productivity. When employees feel overworked, they are less creative, feel more distracted, and more likely to quit. Conversely, when they feel empowered to unplug, they focus on what matters the most, collaborate smartly, and function effectively.

Are you looking for help addressing this and other workplace culture challenges? Potomac Recruiting offers leadership strategies for organizations of every size. If you’re ready to shift the culture around unplugging from work, we’re here to support you! Contact us to discuss your particular needs.

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