Switching off safely

Sometimes we need a good detox to realise how toxic a situation is. When I came back after the Christmas holidays and the heavenly bliss of an (almost) “no signal/no internet” destination, I started to notice some strange behaviours in myself. After two weeks without a “ping” or blinking dots, the inundation with all kinds of notifications from my phone felt incredibly distracting and even stressful. But it got worse! Soon, I was also anxiously checking for notifications even if it didn’t ping (yet). What was going on?

The thing with the ping

Anyone familiar with Charles Duhigg’s (2014) book The Power of Habit will already guess part of the answer. As various studies have shown, social media and messaging sites use notifications to create powerful habits where the cue is the ping and the reward is the new like, comment or a message.

There is another aspect to pings: the fear of missing out or FOMO. Rather than the anticipation of a reward, we fear that we may just have missed an opportunity which makes us feel – among other things – unhappy and envious (Milyavskaya, Saffran, Hope, & Koestner, 2018).

“Indeed, it is difficult to focus on what one is doing when one is worried about what one is missing out on.” (Milyavskaya et al., 2018, p. 734)

In fact, with all the pings, beeps and blinks (and the messages and posts behind them) we may even experience something called social networking services (SNS) fatigue linked to stress. This may be the result from an overload in three areas: information, communication and system features (Lee, Son, & Kim, 2016).

Always on

Pings & co are not just a matter of private communication with friends and family. They are also part of our work environment where colleagues, clients and suppliers expect to reach us at almost any time of the day through a myriad of channels – pick your device and app! Welcome to the “always-on” culture (McDowall & Kinman, 2017).

But this comes at a price. A recent study by Deloitte and the UK mental health charity Mind identified rising costs from poor mental health of employees and increased presenteeism where employees come to work despite feeling unwell.

Presenteeism 24/7

But in an always-on culture, it could be argued, that presenteeism is no different to an ill employee at home – instead of resting and recuperating – checking and responding to their messages. Despite the best intentions, the quality of their work is likely to be worse during periods of sickness. The lack of rest may in turn slow recovery, meaning there could be more days of underperformance.

But even when we are not ill, pings & co may impact on our performance. If we add impaired concentration through the constant distractions from pings & co and the pervasive anxiety of losing out into the mix, the impact on performance and mental health could be even worse overall.

Employers must do more

The importance of mental detachment from work in the prevention of burnout is well documented (e.g. Sonnentag, Mojza, Binnewies, & Scholl, 2008). Some large UK banks and law firms launched the Mindful Business Charter that has – amongst other – respect for rest periods and smart mailing at its heart.

Yet too few companies – in the UK and beyond – have so far introduced clear policies to mitigate the FOMO inherent in the always-on culture or provided (technological) support to manage the pings (McDowall & Kinman, 2017).

While policies slowly make inroads, awareness campaigns alone, or telling an employee to switch off when their boss doesn’t, will not solve the problem. There is also no clear solution for the self-employed and contractors who are often expected to be on call – whatever the time of day or week. So, what can be done?

Managing expectations

Let’s start by bringing the question out in the open. We need to clarify other people’s expectations if we want to manage them, because many expectations are implicit. For example, do we really know that our boss expects us to check e-mails in the middle of the night?

Understanding and managing the expectations of others reduces uncertainty and tells us when we can switch off safely.

Making implicit expectations explicit is an important first step:

  • Clarify expectations: Ask your manager, HR or client, if you really are expected to respond to messages outside of work, when off sick or on holiday.

  • Create a policy: Encourage your employer to introduce a clear policy (or sign up to the Mindful Business Charter) – and if you’re the boss, then create such a policy for your team.

  • Lead by example and switch off! And if you‘re the one clearing your inbox over the weekend, state clearly that you’re not expecting a reply before Monday – or even better: put a delayed sending time on your e-mail.

  • Let your friends know: Don’t forget to manage your friends’ expectations. Put in your status how often or when you check your messages – real friends will understand. And if it’s urgent, real friends usually will find a way to get a hold of you anyway.


Lee, A. R., Son, S., & Kim, K. K. (2016). Information and communication technology overload and social networking service fatigue: A stress perspective. Computers in Human Behavior, 55, 51–61. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2015.08.011

McDowall, A., & Kinman, G. (2017). The new nowhere land? A research and practice agenda for the “always on” culture. Journal of Organizational Effectiveness, 4(3), 256–266. https://doi.org/10.1108/JOEPP-05-2017-0045

Milyavskaya, M., Saffran, M., Hope, N., & Koestner, R. (2018). Fear of missing out: Prevalence, dynamics, and consequences of experiencing FOMO. Motivation & Emotion, 42, 725–737. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-018-9683-5

Sonnentag, S., Mojza, E. J., Binnewies, C., & Scholl, A. (2008). Being engaged at work and detached at home: A week-level study on work engagement, psychological detachment, and affect. Work & Stress, 22(3), 257–276. https://doi.org/10.1080/02678370802379440