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Detaching to Stay Engaged

Should a person’s life revolve around work? High job demands, which are signified by a high level of quantitative job demands reflected in a high workload and time pressure, are very common in present-day jobs, and due to the fact that organizations see positive performance results from very demanding jobs, high job demands are not going anywhere anytime soon. For employees who are faced with too many job demands, continuously being busy with job-related thoughts during their time off reduces work engagement and drains energy, which will impair their well-being in the long term. Fortunately, psychological detachment is a remedy for such a problem.

Detachment vs. Disengagement

Detachment from work (during off-job time) refers to the process of temporarily disengaging from work while one is not on the job. As a result, detachment provides employees the chance to calm down and rebuild or recover their emotional and energetic resources. Detachment can therefore be viewed as a buffer against the negative effects of having excessive job demands, such as constant mental or physical stress, and job strains. This is an important distinction from disengagement, which occurs during work hours and can be viewed as a counterproductive work activity. Disengagement could be caused by a general lack of interest in one’s job or in the organization in which one works.

Detachment from High Job Demands

Demanding jobs produce a stressful short-term experience, cause poor well-being over time, and often result in high health care costs. However, detachment from work provides recovery for such impending issues. When organizations provide and encourage detachment outlets for employees, such as vacation days and leisure activities, it facilitates a buffering effect against the negative effects of having too many job demands. This form of recovery is particularly important because, while high demands might be met with effort and energy investment in the short term, they will eventually lead to negative effects on work engagement in the long term. Excessive job demands are related to an increase in mental and physical complaints and to a decrease in work engagement over a period of time when detachment is low. Lack of detachment from work during off-job time indicates an increase in emotional exhaustion 1 year later.

Practical Implications

These findings are beneficial for those managers who are interested in preventing burnout, or the effects of long-term exhaustion, amongst employees. Managers should also note that factors that relate to job-stress recovery outside of work are important. An unhealthy preoccupation with work during off-job time speeds along employees’ energy depletion processes as well as their likelihood of burnout. Additionally, organizations may have annual training reminding at risk employees to detach from their jobs while away from work. On specific example of this would be for an organization to encourage employees to create an after work competitive intramural sports team that will facilitate detachment. Employees should detach from work during off-job time, especially when job demands are high. For instance, employees could use rituals such as winding down at the end of the work day or actively use commuting time to disengage from job-related thoughts. Additionally, employees may seek to engage in off-job activities that command their full attention in order to increase their detachment from work during off-job time, such as participating in a special interest group or volunteering iin a church or community service organization.

Kandace Waddy


This was a summary of the research and practice implications from: Sonnentag, S., Binnewies, C., Mojza, E. J. (2010). Staying well and engaged when demands are high: The role of psychological detachment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(5), 965-976.