Three myths about disconnecting from work after hours

Mobile devices have made it easier than ever to be always tethered to work. This situation is worsened by mistaken beliefs that leaving work in the office will have negative consequences.
Written by James Kendrick, Contributor

The insertion of mobile devices in our lives has led to many of us working all the time. We have the smartphone or tablet with us always, even during hours we shouldn't be working. We're convinced that bad things will happen if we don't deal with work stuff no matter the situation. This is not healthy, and truth be told the world won't fall apart if we stop working when we should.

Sitting on the dock of the bay
Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet

I admit I'm one of those individuals who feels the need to always be connected so I can deal with work issues no matter the day or time. Work takes priority over downtime, even time spent with family and friends. Mobile devices have contributed to that mindset as they make it easy to be on the clock all the time.

This is very unhealthy for anyone. Downtime is vital for recharging the mental batteries that work saps on a continual basis. There is a good reason work is scheduled for only so many hours a day. Having time off is critical to letting the mind coast for a while. Vacations are crucial to get our thoughts in a good, relaxing place. That's true no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves that we must be on the clock all the time. There are three common misbeliefs about working after hours.

Myth No. 1 — Bosses/clients/customers must always be able to reach me

This sounds so good many of us convince ourselves that we don't like it, but we must deal with work stuff no matter what. The important people in our work life depend on getting in touch when they need something done, and they will be unhappy/disappointed if we don't respond to their outreach immediately.

No doubt this is true for some folks, but most likely if one of these people don't hear back from you at night, on a weekend, or when you are on a scheduled vacation, they will understand. They probably step away from time to time, and they won't judge others who do the same thing.

Failure to step away from work can even come to bite you on the backside. When I was a consultant handling many projects and clients I made it a point to always get back to a client within five minutes of a call or email. I convinced myself that my clients deserved my attention, no matter the day or time of day.

One client set me straight when I called him back quickly after hours. He stated he was glad my consultancy wasn't busy so I could get back to him so fast. That got me to thinking, as I was obviously sending him the wrong message. Truth be told my return call could have waited until the next morning.

My quick response during the work day to another client was even worse. He told me that he knew I was busy and my ability to call him back so fast made him hope that I wasn't calling other clients back while on his dime. That showed me that always having a rapid response, even during the work day, is not always a good thing.

Myth No. 2 — A quick work session won't hurt anything

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The email about work comes in and you pick up the smartphone and dash off a quick response to whatever situation has cropped up. Your thinking is it can't hurt anything, you'll deal with it and get back to the leisure activity in progress.

We've all been there and done that. The problem is the mental recharge that was underway has derailed with that simple activity. Work is often stressful, and leisure is how we deal with it. Mental relaxation is as important, perhaps more so, than physically standing down from activity.

It's never just that one quick thing, either. We do it over and over again, forcing our mental state to bounce like a basketball on the court. We flip from relaxing to "full-on" in an instant, and we do it all too frequently. 

Dealing with these work issues on our own time sends a bad message to family and friends. It sends a clear signal that they aren't as important as work stuff. That's especially true of our kids, who learn by example. Mom or Dad may say they enjoy spending time with them, but their actions send a different message. They always end up pulling out the phone to deal with "something at work". That's not the message family should be getting during off hours.

Next: Myth No. 3; Recharge the mind

Myth No. 3 — If I don't deal with this now it will stack up over the vacation / weekend / day off

Today's connected world has us receiving email all the time. Colleagues or clients dash off a quick message when they think of something. Odds are the majority of the work communications we receive are of this type.

These don't need immediate replies, in fact they're not very important at all. They certainly don't warrant interrupting whatever is happening on our down time and dealing with them right away. It's almost certainly not going to make any difference to the sender, and it definitely is going to jolt the recipient from the happy place they were enjoying.

Fact is, if there was a genuine emergency at work someone would call. That's the best way to deal with real issues, not email. There is seldom a reason to deal with work email on our time off, and the excuse of keeping it from stacking up is at the bottom of the list.

Take time off, relax, recharge the mind

I am trying to get better about not working during off hours. On a recent weekend I took a short trip to the coast, and I made a concerted effort to stay away from work stuff.

Enjoying the day
Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet

I brought no laptop at all, and the tablet stayed in the hotel room to only be used at night for reading a good novel. The only gadget that stayed with me while out enjoying activities was my smartphone. It was only used for taking photos of the good time I was having. No email, no work phone calls were handled. Just pure, simple fun.

A couple of days spending time with friends, and meeting new ones, was refreshing. I came back from this unplugged holiday rested and recharged. I didn't think about work at all, due to the refusal to deal with issues as usual. The difference was fantastic and one I will repeat regularly.

I understand there are always exceptions to every rule and some might have to be essentially on the clock all the time. It's sad for those folks, but the rest need to unplug and enjoy life. There's a whole world out there away from the workplace. Don't miss it.

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