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Jul 142014
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Truly Unwinding
Switch off… or suffer
Mary Paulose
Friday, July 11, 2014

Are you living to work or working to live? Why does unplugging from work seem almost impossible for most of us? Being able to leave work behind and switch off can mean everything for your quality of life

It is a fact universally acknowledged that work-related stress is bad for you. It directly or indirectly causes a myriad health problems ranging from heart disease to lowered immunity… even spinal problems and cancer have been linked to sustained periods of stress.

But how do we get a respite from high pressure and stress in our lives? In our super competitive, dog-eat-dog world, taking a break can mean missed opportunities, and no one wants to be left behind. Precisely why we are unable to really leave work behind, even when we’re not at the office or workplace. How many times have you gone home for the day, been chilling over the weekend, or even away on vacation at a relaxing destination, and run over details of work and business that you “should probably have finished/be getting done right now”? We’re all likely to answer in the affirmative.

It’s the cumulative result of living in today’s society of increased expectations. Layla Halabi, a performance specialist and partner at Learnactive, a human resources consulting and training firm, says, “Our employers and managers want ‘more’ — more work, more creativity, more impact, more commitment, more everything. As a result, most people do not unplug completely when they go on their annual vacations. In fact, for many professionals, unplugging is not even an option.”

Rushed in the UAE

Local lifestyle experts concur that the UAE has a fast-paced working environment. Time seems to pass more quickly here and most people work very long hours, and because they are often working remotely with other countries and time zones, they are on call and responding to emails even if they aren’t in the office.

Working long hours and being available 24/7, 365 days a year is symptomatic of modern working life. “And it’s taking a toll vis a vis burnout, stress, family life, health and people relying on medication to get through,” says Lisa Laws, a life coach and counsellor, based in Dubai, who runs Lisa Laws Coaching.

“Spending the better part of your life in work mode greatly contributes to the increased levels of stress,” points out Rachel Foy, a clinical and cognitive behavioral hypnotherapist and corporate wellness coach.

Disconnect and die?

Unfortunately, that’s the attitude of most young people and professionals here. Sans phone, BBM and emails, you pretty much cease to exist, not just socially but even in the work context. “Yes, people are unable to unplug from work when they leave the office, on weekends and holidays — because they’re always connected by phone, email, BBM etc. When you don’t really leave work and there’s no definite line, it’s harder to switch off,” says Lisa.

Addiction to our devices is well documented. We constantly check our inboxes and think if an email or message arrives, we need to at least read it and often, reply to it immediately. When we are stressed, and we decide we want to relax, we don’t — because we have forgotten how to. So we leave the office and think, right I’m going to relax, but we don’t.

“It feels ‘wrong’ to not be so attached to work. So switching off can be stressful in itself. Studies show that it takes about five days to completely switch off from work, so your holidays need to be longer than a long weekend,” Lisa states.

Technology can be great, but it can also be incredibly bad. Even when people are away from work, they could be lying on a beautiful beach with their family but their emails are still coming through on their phone. “One of the things that I work with all clients on is to help them be clear with and set their boundaries,” says Rachel. “Some people are very bad at saying ‘no’ and feel like they must please everyone.” When someone is able to find their voice and be very clear about what they will and won’t do (and taking work on holiday SHOULD be a no-no!) then stress levels can become significantly better along with some coaching.

De-stress or die…

The word stress is often used but very few people fully understand the extent to which stress can affect them mentally and physically. Most people have some low levels of stress in their lives which they can ‘handle’ but for some stress can become chronic. When this happens, the body starts to dump it in certain areas of the body, resulting in headaches, neck/shoulder issues, digestive upsets, back problems, sleep issues and very low energy levels.

“As mentioned earlier, if someone doesn’t have clear boundaries which means clear time for themselves, then all aspects of their life can and will be affected — no outside interests other than work, no free time to unwind and relax etc,” points out Rachel.

And be warned, it can get serious… “Stress is good for us. Long-term chronic stress is not,” says Lisa. “With chronic long-term stress, we are living with high doses of cortisol and adrenalin.” Mentally, we are looking at focus issues, feelings of being overwhelmed, irritable, and short tempered. We might feel increasingly unhappy; our outside lives suffer and we could be headed towards burnout, a state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.

Unplug and Switch off

Learning to unplug from work and switching off office effectively means learning to set your boundaries. If work is needed to be done at home, allot a certain amount of time and do not go over that time. “Set aside a few times in the week (and plan it in your schedule!) where you do other activities than going to work,” advises Rachel.

Often, it’s more about just getting your priorities right. Lisa says, “With my clients, first we talk about what it is they want — it’s often something they’ve lost sight of. We talk about work-life balance and the losses and gains from working too hard.” Then comes the work. “We look at what needs to happen in order for them to claim their lives back. This often takes us into the area of low self-esteem and insecurity around work and personal lives. They decide what is reasonable for them to ‘give’ to their work and set boundaries and stick to them.”

She often encourages clients to commit to self care — taking up exercise, healthy eating, yoga, meditation, breathing exercises and other stress-busting activities.

It’s not just the individual’s job to learn how to “let go” of work, but their employers’ and companies’ too. “More organisations are recognising the need to help their employees and are starting to incorporate wellness coaching, like relaxation and stress management sessions for all employees. There’s nothing wrong with the employees: often, it’s actually that they are being taken advantage off and being given too much work to do,” points out Rachel.

Unless we are careful, work can literally consume other aspects of one’s life. We are either too busy working or too exhausted to enjoy hobbies, friends and relationships. The term “married to one’s job is tragically true for many,” says Lisa.

Laws of Unplugging

  • If you can’t stop checking emails, messages etc. at all after hours, learn to do it gradually, not at one shot.
  • Decide to check on ‘office work’ at set times, for a set amount of time.
  • On holiday, decide just to check emails twice a day and leave your phone in the hotel.
  • If you fall off the wagon (due to a big project, emergency at work etc) pick yourself up, recommit to having a life and get back on track.
  • Take at least 2 to 4 weeks off per year. Ideally, also take a few long weekends off.
  • When on break, don’t make it a “working” break that is so overscheduled, with a packed itinerary, that there’s no downtime or time to switch off.

 Courtesy: Lisa Laws


How to Switch Off and Shut Out

1.   Before you leave for your vacation

  • Finish any pending assignments or projects
  • Hand-over any ongoing work to a colleague with a detailed explanation for how to handle emergencies.
  • Give your manager and the colleague who will be handling your work copies (hard or soft) of any information or documents they might need in your absence.
  • Set-up your out-of-office notification on your email.


2.  While on Holiday

  • It is difficult for most of us to resist the temptation of checking emails and responding to them, especially with the increased connectivity of today’s work. But your holiday is the time you recharge your body and mind. Research has shown that people who take time to relax and spend time on enjoyable activities are more productive and successful. So think of your holiday as an investment that enables you to do better.
  • Disconnect your work e-mail service completely. If you cannot, set it up so that it is not on automatic push notification but only collects e-mails at certain times of the day.
  • Give yourself an hour each day to handle work. The exact time will depend on the time zone you are in, but whatever the time, do not opt for checking your work emails first thing in the morning!
  • If you have a personal phone number in addition to your work phone, leave your work phone at home and check it only during the hour you’ve allocated for work. If not, try to not answer work calls. I know it’s difficult, but it can be done with a bit of willpower!

3. Your Holiday Schedule

  • Many of us do not plan our holidays nor do we think about how our days will be like. We simply… go on holiday! If you are to get the most from your time away from work, you need to have a few strategies in place to recharge.
  •  Start your day on a positive note. Don’t rush to check emails or work when you wake up. In fact, don’t rush to do anything when you wake up. Take time to enjoy the easier pace by doing things you enjoy. Even the simple act of sipping your coffee or tea quietly can have a significant positive impact on your overall wellbeing.
  • Be Present. Many people allow their minds to dwell on work while on holiday. Push a mental brake and focus your mind on the moment so that you can fully enjoy being with your family and/or friends without the ghost of work haunting the back of your mind.
  • Unwind. Take time at the end of each day to reflect back on the day and to unwind. For many people, the end of the day is ‘shower and sleep’ or simply ‘sleep.’ Take at least 30 minutes to sit quietly and unwind at the end of the day before you sleep. You will sleep better and feel better when you wake up.
  •  Don’t be a slave to others. For many, going back home means having to meet family obligations and endless invitations that seem only to exhaust us. Family is important, but it needn’t become an hectic cycle of dinners, lunches and get-togethers. If you have an extended family, plan on one or two occasions where you can bring them all to fulfill your obligation and devote the rest of your time to your immediate family and close friends.


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