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You truly can’t unplug from work: Study shows ‘shame’ felt by employees for properly detaching from emails, messages

New research shows how reluctant workers are to actually enjoy their time off and not check work messages.
New research shows that workers are typically reluctant to enjoy their time off and not check work messages.

No slack for Slack users?

New research highlights what many employees have felt for some time — unplugging from work, messages and emails has unfortunately become a thing of the past.

A study in the Journal of Applied Psychology, published amid fresh rounds of nationwide layoffs, dives into the pressure felt by workers that keeps them from being truly offline.

A quartet of university professors observed nearly 200 full-time employees for two weeks to see how they managed their time away from the job and how burnout reared its ugly head.

“The more employees detached in the evening, the more shame they felt at work the next morning. Paradoxically, the very experience that’s supposed to rejuvenate employees made them feel bad about themselves instead — like they were problematic employees,” the study authors wrote Sunday in the Wall Street Journal.

research shows that workers are typically reluctant to enjoy their time off and not check work messages. Getty Images
research shows that workers are typically reluctant to enjoy their time off and not check work messages. Getty Images

Adding insult to injury, this shame led to employees being “more likely to cut corners” from 9 to 5 by making themselves appear busier and doing more than they actually were.

The researchers also noted that high-pressure environments commonly result in employee strain and underwhelming productivity results.

“The threat of falling behind and potentially damaging their reputations made employees feel as if they had to get ‘up to speed’ by any means necessary,” they wrote.

Study authors also pointed fingers at managers for practicing a “do as I say, not as I do” philosophy.

Although they may preach to make your own time be about you, they’re sending emails and messages after hours and making employees feel like that’s just a norm of the business.

A new study in the Journal of Applied Psychology dives into the pressure felt by workers that keeps them from being truly offline. Getty Images/iStockphoto
A new study in the Journal of Applied Psychology dives into the pressure felt by workers that keeps them from being truly offline. Getty Images/iStockphoto

“This kind of behavior signals that work-life balance and detachment aren’t genuine organizational priorities,” the authors wrote. “What’s more, if managers fail to take breaks from work themselves, employees might perceive messages about detachment as lip service.”

The researchers added, “Managers who reward or glamorize overwork also contribute to the problem.”

Furthermore, they observed that company policies that offer unlimited paid time off aren’t a solid solution either.

Such policies only put more pressure on employees — and instigate a fear of pushback — to actually use the time they’re entitled to.

Many workers feel like they cannot unplug from the job during their free time. Getty Images/iStockphoto
Many workers feel like they cannot unplug from the job during their free time. Getty Images/iStockphoto

“Instead, firms interested in advocating for well-being should consider more-targeted policies, such as requiring employees to take a certain number of days off or setting mandatory vacation days that clearly signal that detachment is part of the job,” they shared.

As workers are increasingly being nudged back to showing up in person, the researchers stress that it’s on bosses to make the office a place to work that’s more conducive — but employees have some leverage too.

“They should think twice before sending late emails or responding to Slack messages to avoid inadvertently perpetuating an ‘always on’ culture,” they said.