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Why ‘reattaching’ to work is just as important as detaching from it

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Moya Crockett
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Do you struggle to get back in the professional zone after time out? This simple strategy could be the answer.

You probably know how important it is to unplug from work, even if you often struggle to do it. Studies have shown that our psychological and physical energy is likely to plummet if we fail to mentally detach from our job on a regular basis, while people who are able to disconnect from work experience a host of benefits – from less work-related exhaustion to lower rates of procrastination, greater relationship satisfaction and better mental and physical health. Ironically, making sure that we’re not constantly doing or thinking about work is also likely to make us better employees in the long run: research has found that people who regularly ‘tap out’ of work tend to be more engaged and productive when they are in the office, particularly if they work in high-stress fields.

So, yes: it’s important to disengage from work wherever possible outside of our scheduled working hours, whether that means deleting the email app from our phones or filling our non-working time with new hobbies. But according to new research, we shouldn’t just be coming up with strategies to detach from work: we should also be thinking about ways of reattaching to it.

The study, published in the Journal of Management, shows that reattaching to work in the morning can help employees thrive and feel more engaged by their job. Put simply, reattaching is the process of getting back in the work zone after some much-needed time out (say, on a Monday morning). During reattachment, we should plan for the upcoming work day – thinking about what’s on our schedules, the tasks we have to achieve, any potential challenges that might arise, and what support and resources we might need to accomplish our goals. 

They were all determinedly detaching from work 

Charlotte Fritz, one of the study’s co-authors and associate professor of industrial-organisational psychology at Portland State University, explains that how employees reattach to work will vary from person to person, job to job, and even day to day. You might find it helpful to think about specific tasks you need to achieve that day while eating breakfast or in the shower, she says. Alternatively, you could mentally run through a conversation with your supervisor during your commute, or go over your to-do list while waiting in line at Pret.

Taking these simple steps before starting work can help us “activate” our work-related goals, the study’s authors say. According to motivated action theory – a psychological model that explains why we behave in certain ways in the workplace – professional goals are triggered, or activated, when we notice gaps between where we are and where we’d like to be. Once we’ve spotted these gaps, we can then take steps to close them.

Fritz explains that activating work-related goals through reattachment “then further creates positive experiences which allow people to be more engaged at work”.

“We know that detachment from work during non-work hours is important because it creates positive outcomes like higher life satisfaction and lower burnout,” she says. “Now we need to think about helping people mentally reconnect to work at the beginning of their work shift or day so they can create positive outcomes during their work day and be immersed in their work. It’s not enough to just show up.”

Setting aside some time each morning to run through your to-do list will help set you up for the day ahead

If you struggle to get back into the professional groove after taking a break, you’re not alone – we’ve all experienced the unfocused fog that settles over us after a holiday, weekend or even a long lunch break. But while thinking about the day ahead while you’re brushing your teeth might feel like an unwelcome intrusion (should you really have to think about work before you’re actually at your desk?), practising reattachment strategies could help you slip back into the saddle more easily.

Rather than leaving all the responsibility with individual workers, researchers say that organisations should also carve out time for employees to reattach to work. This might mean allowing workers a few quiet minutes at the start of each day, running through to-do lists together, or supporting them in prioritising their most important goals. All of these things are likely to help employees feel more engaged at work.

Fritz defines feeling engaged at work as “a sense of energy, [a] sense of feeling absorbed, feeling dedicated to work” – and says that engaged employees are “more satisfied with work, more committed to work, enjoy work tasks more [and] perform better”. That sounds pretty good to us.

Images: Getty Images 

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Moya Crockett

Moya is Women’s Editor at stylist.co.uk. As well as writing about inspiring women and feminism, she also covers subjects including careers, politics and psychology. Carrying a bottle of hot sauce on her person at all times is one of the many traits she shares with both Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton.

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