The Connection Between Exhaustion & Psychological Detachment From Work

Topic(s): burnout, wellness
Publication: Journal of Occupational Health Psychology
Article: Exhaustion and lack of psychological detachment from work during off-job time: Moderator effects of time pressure and leisure experiences
Authors: Sabine Sonnentag, Hillevi Arbeus, Christopher Mahn, & Charlotte Fritz
Reviewed by: Hodar Lam

Have you ever felt frustrated by an inability to stop thinking about work, even when you’re not on the clock?

All these worries and stress after-hours may actually hinder our ability to function at work. Failing to mentally disengage from work (also known as psychological detachment from work) is related to exhaustion, one of the key signs of burnout.

In a new study, titled “Exhaustion and lack of psychological detachment from work during off-job time: Moderator effects of time pressure and leisure experiences,” researcher Sabine Sonnetag and her colleagues investigated this link.


Folk wisdom (which was supported by some previous studies) suggests that a lack of psychological detachment can lead to both physical and emotional exhaustion. But researchers on the current study found that the relationship’s cause and effect might actually work the other way: Exhausted employees probably have more difficulty disconnecting from work-related issues.

We need mental resources in order to deal with tasks at work. When we’re tired and drained of energy, any remaining tasks tend to dominate our minds. It becomes difficult to think about anything other than the long “To-Do” list, forcing our personal life to take a backseat to our work.

Having work-related thoughts linger on our minds during leisure time doesn’t make us workaholics. But the exhaustion it creates makes us feel used up, and we subsequently fail to control our thinking. The situation gets even worse when deadlines loom large and we have no time for leisure activities.



So what can an organization do to promote psychological detachment and improve the well-being of its employees (especially the exhausted ones)? Time management emerges as the top priority.

According to the research of Sonnentag and her colleagues, managers and supervisors should allow their employees more flexibility in setting their timeline of tasks. Helping employees to relieve time pressure through skills training and adapting performance appraisal procedures is useful as well. But emphasizing the importance of enjoyable leisure activities among employees is equally vital.



It is surprising to realize that when an employee gets tired, work-related thoughts will continue to dominate their mind. Exhaustion leads to an inability to disconnect, which eventually leads to burnout.

Again, managing time is the panacea, along with making the most of the time we have away from work. When we are not at the office, we should make time to rest, relax and have fun.