Do We Need to Detach From Work During Time Off?

We need time off, such as weekends and vacations, to recover from work. No one can work or strive to be productive, whether in a professional or personal capacity, 24/7. And we know a little bit about what we need to do during that time off to actually reap the benefits.

It’s not rocket science. Relaxation and enjoyment, for example, allow us to rebuild the necessary internal resources to tackle work again. Having agency over how we spend out time is a big one. Mastery, or developing skills that are not necessarily connected to work (painting, playing a musical instrument, studying Judo, etc.) seem to help as well (Eschleman et al., 2014).

But do we need to let go, psychologically speaking, from work to recuperate?

The research I’ve read on this topic so far is inconclusive. Some say yes (Sonnentag et al., 2010) while others have found no evidence (Eschleman et al., 2014).

Perhaps it’s subjective, in the same way “enjoyment” is subjective. Come to think of it, “mastery” has an air of subjectivity, too, as people don’t usually try to master something that they do not enjoy, find interesting, or see some inherent value in.

The Email Hitch

Part of the problem with knowing definitively whether detaching from work during our time off helps us recover may be that research takes a while to conduct. Researchers have to design a study and validate that it doesn’t have major flaws, get funding, conduct the study, crunch their numbers, writer a paper, submit the paper to peer-reviewed journals, go through the editorial cycle, and finally, perhaps two or three or four years later, see their work published.

In that same span of time, our societal approach to work can change dramatically, especially in light of technology.

For example, think about the way many forward-thinking organizations deal with internal communication now compared to 2010. Additionally, employees’ attitudes about managing work-life balance change, in part because their relationship and comfort with technology and always-on communication systems are so different from what they used to be.

How we think about work-life balance today, societally, is different from what it was 15 or 20 years ago. I would argue that there is much more room now for a variety of approaches to it, whereas formerly, you were either well-adjusted or a workaholic.

But now, the idea of checking work email over the weekend, just to stay on top of any critical messages, is much more acceptable than it was even a few years ago. Likewise, shifting toward messaging apps, like Slack and HipChat, for intra-company communication let key people reach one another quickly if something critical occurs off hours, and the way it works is fundamentally different from getting an email.

When using email to communicate, the person taking time off has to either check it constantly to make sure nothing is slipping by or create custom alerts, which may or may not be available based on what email system the organization uses and other factors. Plus, with email, the crux of a message has a tendency to get buried, leaving people to wade through pages of replies to figure out what’s important. A tool like Slack, on the other hand, encourages succinct communication, just by its design. It also comes with all the tools one needs to set alerts as well as dismissals. “Automatically put me in ‘do not disturb’ mode from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m.” or “Always notify me when someone sends me a direct message.”

Having the right tools to stay in touch with colleagues and clients at night, over the weekend, and while on vacation makes it easier and more efficient now for knowledge workers to stay connected to their jobs without necessarily feeling the same burden of “not detaching” from work. For some people, knowing that they are connected in the event they’re needed may be less stressful than detaching completely. For others, the thought that they could get an urgent message at any moment may be more stressful.


Again, how you feel about communication systems and how you feel about being reachable during your vacation is subjective. So do whatever you feel more comfortable doing.


Eschleman, K. J., Madsen, J., Alarcon, G., & Barelka, A. (2014). Benefiting from creative activity: The positive relationships between creative activity, recovery experiences, and performance-related outcomes. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.

Fritz, C., & Sonnentag, S. (2005). Recovery, health, and job performance: Effects of weekend experiences. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 10, 187–199. doi:10.1037/1076-8998.10.3.187

Sonnentag, S., Kuttler, I., & Fritz, C. (2010). Job stressors, emotional exhaustion, and need for recovery: A multi-source study on the benefits of psychological detachment. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 76, 355–365. doi:10.1016/j.jvb.2009.06.005

Image by Simon Ingram, CC


2 thoughts on “Do We Need to Detach From Work During Time Off?

  1. I’ve tried to totally unplug when I’m on vacation and I’ve found that I worry about what fires might be brewing or get stressed about how much work is piling up in my absence. I’ve found that if I do a half-an-hour of work every day (respond to some emails and do a little other work), I feel a lot less guilty and I can enjoy the rest of the day.I can let my mind wander the rest of the day – and that is when I seem to get creative ideas!

    I’m a physician so I really appreciate the evidence-based approach that this blog is taking.


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