Death by overworking? How to disconnect from work and recover

“I’m going to need you to come in on Saturday…and Sunday, too.” This infamous line from the movie “Office Space,” satirizing work life in white collar professions, may be reality for many employees in the United States (US). According to a study by the Center for American Progress, the US is the most overworked developed country. That means going to the office on the weekend or working remotely from home after hours is the norm. Approximately 83% of Americans report significant workplace stress associated with time pressures, excessive workloads, low compensation, and conflicts. While challenges at work can be stimulating and may energize a worker to become more successful, negative stress may occur when the worker does not have the capability to manage perceived demands.

It is well established that workplace stress is associated with an increased risk for heart disease, cancer, and emotional health problems. This in turn may lead to reduced productivity, more sick days, and lower morale. Eventually, this negative cycle may lead to burnout. In Japanese, there is a word called ‘karoshi’ which literally means “death by overwork.” Have we embodied that in the US?

Time will tell, but there may be a glimpse of hope on the horizon. According to Ron Friedman, PhD, author of “The best place to work,” some companies have finally realized that better defining work responsibilities leads to improved productivity and more profit for the company. For instance, Volkswagen reportedly turns off email servers on workday evenings and during weekends to force employees to rest and recover. A software company in Denver, Colorado actually pays employees $7500 to take a vacation, but there are stipulations: No working on vacation and you must disconnect.

I know – these sound like wonderful scenarios! But the truth is that most employees are so accustomed to checking email at all hours that disconnecting is actually very difficult. Just think about the last time you didn’t work over the weekend? Has that ever been the case?

Our brains function better and more creatively if we build-in times for rest and recovery. And unless you work for one of these innovative companies, you will have to be the one to initiate disconnecting.

If your employer is not cutting edge like the companies mentioned, and admittedly most are not, there are some ways you can reduce your work-induced stress:

Engage with nature. Researchers wanted to know if engaging nature during the work day influenced stress levels. The participants were staff members at a Southern university in the US. Interestingly, the participants who spent time outdoors and were around nature had better general health and lower stress levels. Even if someone has a heavy workload with long days, taking a walk during lunch may be a great way to distract from one’s work.

Stop thinking…momentarily. Our conscious mind is great at making simple decisions. However, researchers have found that people who reflect on an important decision and then use distraction before ultimately making a choice end up choosing more wisely than people who only rely on conscious thinking.

What are ways that you disconnect from work to promote rest and recovery?

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  • Matt Crosslin

    I like to watch a good sitcom to disconnect – even if its just a re-run, as long as I get a good laugh it helps. But then I have to make sure NOT to check email after that or else it might negate all the laughter.