The importance of recovery from work-related stress in supporting personal wellbeing has been widely researched in health and organizational psychology. The mechanisms for recovery can be divided into psychological detachment, relaxation, mastery and experiencing control. The recently held annual Psychology Congress of Finland provided detailed insight especially about the mechanisms and effects of psychological detachment in relieving job related stress. The information in this text about psychological detachment and its effects on wellbeing is based on the articles and work of Dr Sabine Sonnetag.
Psychological detachment can simply be defined as not thinking about work-related issues after work hours. The relationship between detachment and wellbeing has been thoroughly researched as well as the characteristics of different kinds of employees and the ways they handle work related stress. The relationship between detachment and wellbeing is evident through for instance decrease in fatigue and negative affect. Detachment is especially important when job demands and time pressure are high. However, it has been found that employees who highly identify themselves with their work, and could thus be expected to also experience high job demands and time pressure, do not use detachment as a way to relieve job stress as much as people with less personal identification with work. It seems that the people most in need of the protective influence of detachment have a relationship to work that makes detaching somewhat impossible.
When thinking about modern information intensive work that pervades the typical limits of working hours and places, it may be that it will present individuals with increasing challenges for recovery from stress by detachment. What to do when work is no longer defined by work hours and work roles that can be isolated from other facets of life? Is high job-related stress inevitable when people find work in which they wish to immerse?
It seems intuitively reasonable that thinking about work related matters during non-work time, or failing at detachment, may increase experience of work-related stress. However, the pathological nature of work-related thoughts is difficult to comprehend: What is the difference between thinking about a concept that has to do with what you do for a living than for instance one about your leisure time interests? Is the pathology of work-related thinking created more by loss of control over thought processes than the contents of the thoughts themselves?
Loss of control over thoughts is a characteristic of the mind that is already noted as a factor in many mental illnesses. Increasing control over thought processes is a major goal of many psychotherapies and as a part of metacognition a vital cognitive process in learning and intelligent human function. Increasing metacognitive awareness and skills could provide a way for busy people to support wellbeing despite high immersion in work. Especially activation of negative work-related thoughts has been connected with increased fatigue and negative affect. Using metacognitive skills and control to stop negative thought cycles about work-related issues, identifying the most important things to think about and recognizing their influence on emotions and wellbeing would provide concrete and powerful internal tools to support stress management in lack of possibilities for detachment.
What could help in creating a sense of detachment in highly engaging information intensive work is finding a new way of thinking about work. People’s lives are in any case filled with a constantly transforming mass of subject matters and tasks. Some tasks and subjects are defined as work and people are rewarded money for letting these take up their time and brain activity. Some for instance have to do with hobbies and can activate a person and take up time and energy without any direct monetary consequences. A person’s work can in itself contain profuse tasks and subject matters varying in how motivating, challenging and rewarding they are. If the tasks that make up leisure time and the tasks that make up work would lose their imaginary boundary of definition, there is no reason why thinking about one work-related subject matter could not produce detachment from another. When thinking of tasks in this way, there would actually be no reason to specifically strive for detachment. Everything a person does is transient attachment, to different kinds of parties, matters and with different material and non-material consequences. For true stress relief and long-lasting wellbeing, it would be best to create as much positive, energizing and rewarding attachment as possible within and outside work-related circles. Detachment from one thing happens by itself through attachment to another.