When Mental Detachment from Work Is a Must

Topic(s): stress, wellness, work-life balance
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2010)
Article: Staying well and engaged when demands are high: The role of psychological detachment
Authors: S. Sonnentag, C. Binnewies, E.J. Mojza
Reviewed by: Benjamin Granger

When we are faced with high job demands at work, stress and emotional burnout often lurk right around the corner. Regardless of the potentially harmful effects of high job demands, they are a constant reality for many of us. But before we throw up our hands in surrender when work piles up, there are buffers against the dreaded consequences of excessive job demands. One such buffer is known as psychological detachment, which is a fancy term for “leaving work at work” and devoting mental resources to non-work-related things while not on the clock. 


In a recent study, researchers (Sonnentag, Binnewies, & Mojza, 2010) explored how psychological detachment helps employees stay healthy and engaged when job demands are high. The findings suggest that employees who do not detach themselves from work during non-work times experience increased emotional burnout one year later.

High job demands also have detrimental effects on employees’ physical health and work engagement, but only for those who do not psychologically detach themselves from work. For employees who are able to “leave work at work,” high job demands do not appear to lead to lower work engagement, increased physical health issues, or increased burnout.  


This study reminds us that preoccupying ourselves with work during our off time (e.g., evenings, weekends, vacations) can lead to health issues and lower work engagement. 

From an organization’s perspective, reduced employee well-being and engagement can result in monetary losses due to reduced productivity, absenteeism, lateness, turnover, health insurance costs, etc. However, organizations can seek and employ certain strategies to mitigate employee stress.

This study also highlights the importance of taking a “mental break” from work when job demands are high. Unfortunately, increased job demands often require greater time commitments from employees. The authors suggest that employees carry out daily rituals that allow them to temporarily detach themselves from work. For example, if work continues at home after leaving the office, employees can focus on things not associated with work during their commute. When time permits, engaging in leisure activities that require a great deal of concentration is another great way to recharge the old batteries. 


Sonnentag, S., Binnewies, & Mojza, E.J. (2010). Staying well and engaged when demands are high: The role psychological detachment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(5), 965-976.