The Secret to Staying Engaged at Work

by Ron Friedman, Ph.D.

The surprising power of restocking your mental energy. 

How often do you check your cell phone after leaving work? The answer might reveal your future productivity.

According to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, the less employees detach psychologically during off-hours, the higher their emotional exhaustion in twelve months’ time.

Staying connected is addictive. It helps us feel needed, in the know, productive. But constant communication comes with a cost. An onslaught of e-mails, text messages, and phone calls breeds a sense of perpetual emergency, fostering an ongoing stress response in the brain. And continuous pressure has a damaging effect on the way we think and feel.

When we can’t fully log off, we can’t fully recover.

Jim Loehr is a sports psychologist who has coached some of the world’s top athletes. Early in his career, Loehr spent countless hours studying elite tennis performers, trying to pinpoint what makes them better than everyone else. What he found was surprising. According to Loehr, the key difference can’t be found in players’ serves, their volleys, or their play at net. It’s not even their experience or innate ability that sets them apart. It’s what they do between points. Some athletes are better at calming their nerves and restoring their focus, and they’re the ones who tend to win most.

Loehr’s observation is as applicable to the workplace as it is to the tennis court. A careful balance of work and recovery is as vital for mental athletes as it is for those whose job it is to excel at physical skill. In both cases, when we deny ourselves the opportunity to recuperate, our performance invariably suffers.

In many organizations, being available around the clock has become an unspoken expectation. When a manager sends late-night e-mails, he implicitly endorses a round-the-clock work culture, paving the way for after-hours stress that spills over into the home, where a curt e-mail can spoil a dinner or ruin a weekend.

While there are undoubtedly instances when staying connected is legitimately necessary, it’s rare for a business to require that every team member stay logged on continuously. In fact, it’s in a company’s interest to allow employees to recover. If an associate is frequently working late into the night and through the weekend, she is likely doing so at a cost to long-term engagement.

It used to be the case that managers had to push employees to work harder. Today the opposite seems to be happening. In many industries, a key to retaining top talent involves protecting employees from working nonstop, which is why some pioneering organizations are starting to take matters into their own hands, leaving employees little choice but to recharge.

Volkswagen, for example, has begun turning off its e-mail server thirty minutes after the end of a shift and turning it back on just before the start of the next one. They’re not alone in limiting access. Others organizations, like Empower Public Relations in Chicago, are also adopting an e-mail blackout policy, because they find that it helps employees arrive at work fresher the next day.

Daimler, another German automaker, has programmed its server to automatically delete e-mails received during employee vacations, telling senders who they can contact in an employee’s absence. Even the highly regarded Boston Consulting Group has begun monitoring employee paid time off (PTO)—not to identify employees who take too much personal time, but to flag individuals who accrue too many hours without taking a break.

A surprising number of companies have stopped limiting vacation time altogether, including IBM, Evernote, and Netflix. It’s a way of communicating trust in their employees and encouraging them to take the time they need when they need it.

But the workplace with the most outrageously pro–time off policy? Without a doubt, that title belongs to FullContact, a Denver software company that in 2012 implemented a program that actually pays employees seventy-five hundred dollars to take their family on vacation. There are, however, a few strings attached. To receive the bonus, employees must first agree to three strict provisions, as outlined on the blog of FullContact CEO Bart Lorang:

1. You have to go on vacation, or you don’t get the money.

2. You must disconnect.

3. You can’t work while on vacation.

And just why are they being so generous? Lorang put it this way: “We’ll be a better company if employees disconnect.”

There is a lesson here for organizations aiming to inspire top performance. Within a knowledge economy, productivity and time off are no longer incompatible. Quite the opposite.

Producing extraordinary work requires learning to stop.


To see the original article at Psychology Today, click here.

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