·  Legal News, Analysis, & Commentary

Mental Health

The Endless Tug of Work: Impossible to Unplug?

— February 27, 2024

With endless technology, employees are feeling more obligated to stay on top of work matters.

In the modern world, the boundaries between personal and professional life are becoming increasingly blurred, with employees finding it challenging to detach from work-related emails and messages during their off-hours. Recent research backs up this belief. It suggests that there is a pervasive sense of shame among employees who attempt to unplug.

Published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, the study conducted by a group of university professors looks into the experiences of nearly 200 full-time employees over a two-week period. The focus of the research is to understand how individuals manage their time away from work and the subsequent manifestation of burnout.

The key revelation, as mentioned in the Wall Street Journal, suggests that the act of detaching from work, which should ideally serve as a rejuvenating experience, often instills feelings of shame in employees the following day.

The researchers observed a paradoxical dynamic where the more employees detached in the evening, the more shame they felt at work the next morning. This emotional response creates a perception of being problematic employees, contributing to a negative cycle that affects both well-being and productivity.

The study identified a troubling consequence of the experienced shame – a higher likelihood of employees resorting to unethical work practices. Employees under the influence of this shame were observed to be “more likely to cut corners” during their regular working hours, giving the impression of busyness while, in reality, accomplishing less.

The Endless Tug of Work: Impossible to Unplug?
Photo by from Pexels

This behavior, driven by a fear of falling behind or damaging their professional reputation, reflects the strain induced by high-pressure work environments.

The researchers also turned their attention to managerial practices, revealing a “do as I say, not as I do” philosophy that contributes to the perpetuation of an “always on” culture.

While managers may advocate for employees to prioritize personal time, their own after-hours emails and messages send conflicting signals. This incongruence between words and actions erodes the credibility of organizational messages about detachment, leading to a culture where being constantly available is perceived as the norm.

The study highlights the importance of genuine organizational commitment to work-life balance and detachment. Managers who consistently reward or glamorize overwork inadvertently contribute to the problem by setting unrealistic expectations for their teams.

The research challenges the effectiveness of unlimited paid time-off policies as a solution. Rather than alleviating the pressure on employees, these policies may intensify the fear of facing repercussions for taking entitled time off.

The study suggests that a more targeted approach, such as requiring a specific number of days off or implementing mandatory vacation days, could better communicate the organization’s commitment to employee well-being.

As organizations transition to hybrid or in-person work models, the researchers emphasize the role of both employers and employees in shaping a healthier work environment. While managers need to create a workplace culture that values the ability to unplug, employees also hold leverage in influencing this culture.

The study encourages employees to reconsider sending late-night emails or responding to messages during non-working hours to avoid unintentionally perpetuating the “always on” expectation.

The research highlights the pressing need for a collective effort to redefine workplace norms, promoting a culture where employees can genuinely detach from work without facing shame or professional consequences.

The evolving nature of work demands a well thought out and empathetic approach from organizations and individuals alike to ensure a harmonious balance between professional commitments and personal well-being.


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

Our Bosses Tell Us to Unplug From Work. We Don’t Believe They Mean It. 

Are you guilty of breaking these unspoken office rules?: ‘This should be an actual law’

Gen Z workers give Manhattan shady new nickname: ‘Why would I come here for fun?’

Join the conversation!