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4 Ways to Normalize it’s Okay to Step Away from Work, Even During Work Hours

*Originally published by Fast Company

We all know what it feels like to fight sleep. A proposal is due first thing the next morning, a toddler is still fussing, or there’s a weird noise at the window. But eventually, even the most vigilant guard dog can’t stay on guard anymore.  

 

In a lot of ways, that’s what disconnecting from work—truly unplugging —can feel like. It’s counterintuitive because there’s more work to do. It’s uncomfortable because there might be judgment or guilt attached. Even though we know our minds and bodies need to recharge, we still fight it. But eventually, our bodies give in because they know it’s unsustainable. 

The truth is that our nervous systems have been in this state since the world got 2020’d. According to Gallup’s State of the World’s Workplace report, stress and anxiety levels are still at an all-time high. Some of us have acknowledged it, while others are ignoring it to focus on getting through another day. It’s as if we’re in a horror movie to stay awake to survive, but instead of a two-hour film, we’ve been watching this for almost three years. 

People have been scaling back to only “working their wage” or outright resigning to focus on more important things in life. There’s a longer-term trend of a “cry for help” coming at all levels. CEO and employees are prioritizing their well-being over careers for the first time. The symptoms of burnout and poor mental health already existed; 2020 just lifted the hood to lay all to bare.

As we’re entering yet another cycle of uncertainty—hiring freezes, layoffs, recession—we’re dialing in harder. But instead of pushing ourselves to work faster and longer as if we’re automatons, a better method to yield results would be to hit pause, unplug, and reboot. Here are four ways to disconnect to reconnect.

 

ENCOURAGE & MODEL OOO BY TRULY GOING OFFLINE

Go beyond the email autoresponder, resist temptations to check in, and honor it for your team with intention. Jen Fisher, Deloitte’s chief well-being officer, walked her talk with an OOO email that everyone could relate to. Knowing that checking emails is the top reason why people don’t fully disconnect while on vacation, she shared specific ways to help and ended it with, “Thanks for helping to support…[for] ease of re-entry upon my return. You can count on me to support you in the same way!” Fisher was accountable for her actions and mindful of how they might impact others. 

Openly share and encourage different ways to go offline, so people can choose what fits them best. Using email schedulers, turning on “do not disturb,” and removing unnecessary apps from the phone should no longer be seen as taboo. 

The bottom line is even a short disconnect can reduce stress, especially if you’re completely off the grid and your thumbs aren’t twitching to see what you’re missing. By modeling, you’re instilling a sense of trust that they’ve got your back, and you’ve got theirs when they decide to recharge, too. 

IT’S NOT ENOUGH TO JUST UNPLUG ONCE IN A WHILE. WE NEED TO LATHER, RINSE, & REPEAT

Encourage people to dial into what replenishes them [or, as I say, what nurtures their greenhouse]. Maybe that’s taking up pickleball, spending intentional time with friends and family, or helping a stranger in need. And don’t just encourage it once, do it twice and beyond—be invested in continual experimentation.

The takeaway here is to keep testing what works best. Studies show that trying different things can fulfill us because we’re activating our brains in new ways. Note the difference between what you felt before and after, then decide if it’s something worth continuing. 

Just remember someone’s meditation practice might not be another’s cup of turmeric tea. Everyone’s different when it comes to what gives them a sense of unplugged peace. Today’s workplace has forever changed, and the key is to support people in testing what works best for them.

It’s like any investment we make. If we don’t see the value of it, we’re not going to keep adding to it. Consider it a well-being [or wholeness] fund, generating an ROI that affects our mental health and how we work/live. It’s something we all know we need but “don’t have time” to get to. But if we feel the benefits for ourselves and the people we love, it’s more likely time will be made for it.

 

ENCOURAGE EMPLOYEES TO UNPLUG DURING THE WORKDAY

We know multitasking is not where our best work happens. The more task-switching we do, the more it impairs our cognitive ability, with up to a loss of 40% productivity and, ultimately, burnout.

Now that the hood’s been lifted, let’s keep naming what’s underneath—the workplace can be a major source of our stresses. In a recent bold move, the U.S. Surgeon General reinforced that.

When we unplug and replug in throughout the day, our tanks won’t get fully depleted. We need to allow ourselves and others the flexibility to set aside time for deep work and to reset throughout the day. Create daily scenarios where skills are met with the opportunity to plunge into a state of flow.
 

It’s easier to stick a health warning on a pack of cigarettes than on a company’s front door. But if we can unplug throughout the day—whether it’s just 5 minutes or 30—we can sustain a higher, healthier, and more productive level of work.

Here are a few actionable scenarios you can encourage your team to hit play on during the work day:

Focus Time: Similar to how we have “do not disturb” [DND] on our phones, we need to add DND [or, simply put, focus time] to our calendars. If we don’t take intentional time to unplug and make room for uninterrupted deep work, that space will be too easily sucked up into something else.

Test new techniques like the Pomodoro until you find ones that fit you and your habits best. Get into states of flow by making routine tasks more interesting or challenging. It’s no longer a badge of honor to be doing five things at once to expedite your burnout.

Get out of your chair: Use an app or timer to remind yourself to move. Take a five-minute walk around the office [or home office], have a spontaneous dance party, do some light stretching, or maybe take 10 to get outside. I downloaded the Plum Village app that has a “mindfulness bell” that tolls at the top of every hour. It reminds me to stand up and take a few deep breaths whenever I can. It’s like taking a shot of oxygen, and I feel refreshed.

Give yourself a buffer time between meetings: Instead of scheduling 60-minute meetings, try 50 minutes allowing yourself a 10-minute buffer. Give yourself ample space to organize your thoughts, plan the next steps, or take a long break. It will give you a chance to reset and refocus, so you can be fully present for your next meeting or task at hand. 
 

Feed your brain: We often get so engrossed in what we’re working on that we forget to eat, or we stuff something [healthy or not] down before the next call, making us crabby, hangry, and foggy. Set a timer or block out lunches on your calendar and grab some real grub. Take a real lunch break by eating outside or inviting a friend you haven’t seen in a while.

Take a moment of gratitude: Instead of focusing on all that’s wrong with your day, take just a minute or two to jot down something that went well with your day. If it involves someone else, let that person know, so they’ll share a moment of unplugging and gratitude, too. The adage is true: happiness never decreases when shared.

Test the four-day workweek

The latest results of what a four-day workweek can do for organizations have been making a TGIT [Thank God it’s Thursday] news splash. In a six-month study of 33 companies in the U.S. and Ireland, none are returning to a five-day workweek [with two on the fence]. They reported an average revenue increase of 38%, and employees wanted to continue the four-day workweek with a reported decrease in burnout. 

As my CMO, April Jones [a mom of three, wife, and entrepreneur], explains, 

“The four-day workweek allows me to honor how I spend my time more efficiently. I can show up fully in the hat I’m wearing without heart palpitations of trying to do it all. It’s not about giving less to any role but about organizing my time to bring my whole, healthier self to each.”

The jury may still be out for companies to fully adopt the four-day workweek, but the message is it’s worth testing new ways of working. A one-size-fits-all solution won’t ever exist, but employees are looking for autonomy, flexibility, and trust to operate in ways that work for them. The likelihood is that employees with more time to nurture their greenhouse will show up more energized to take on the next unpredictable challenge that comes our way.

If we’ve learned anything since 2020, there’s a new era of the way we work, and the demand for workplaces to be more human is overdue. As leaders, we need to go beyond acknowledging that people’s work/life priorities have changed; we need to understand and support them, too.

The best next step is to ask and listen attentively to our teams: What does it mean to truly unplug and reenergize to you? Ask with psychological safety [without fear of judgment] and a reminder that it’s coming from a place to align our values, behaviors, and a sense that we’re genuinely in this together.

We can start by hitting reset tomorrow, disconnecting from what was old and tired, and reconnecting in new ways that reengage us all. Making work more human is the advantage, so let’s lead like it is.

Are you taking steps to prioritize what's most important to you? Our Greenhouse Method for Individuals provides tools to help you begin building and nurturing your own greenhouse.