Is your mind buzzing 24/7? If so, you're in the grip of the overwork epidemic and enslaved by technology, says India Sturgis
Is a glass of wine the only way you can unwind after a day at work? When you go to bed, is your mind wrung dry yet still racing like a steam engine? And when you get to sleep, do work thoughts wake you in the night?
We are in the midst of an overwork epidemic. Mobile devices were meant to free us from the office, but technology has long ago killed the 9-5 working day and left us mentally tethered to our desks, 24/7, instead.
A recent study of 3,000 UK workers showed that 69 per cent were regularly required to work outside of their official hours. Oxford scientists claim people now get between one and two hours' less sleep than 60 years ago. Research by Microsoft suggests that the internet age has left humans with attention spans even shorter than those of goldfish.
While the adage has it that "hard work never killed anybody", a growing body of research begs to differ. Professor Mark Cropley, a leading psychologist at the University of Surrey specialising in health and stress, believes our inability to separate our working lives and leisure time is having potentially devastating consequences.
"Inadequate psychological recovery, or poor disengagement from work, is associated with a range of health problems including cardiovascular disease, fatigue, negative mood and sleep disturbance," he explains, citing a study that found men who were unable to switch their mind off after work had a threefold increase risk of heart disease. The Japanese even have a name for it: kar?shi, or "death from overwork.
"Technology is a large part of the problem," says Prof Cropley. Mobile communication has increased tenfold over the past two decades. It is a double-edged sword. Our lives are incessantly bombarded and interrupted by emails, texts and phone calls - much of it unnecessary - keeping us plugged in and unable to relax. The economic climate is equally at fault. We all feel less secure in our jobs, so work harder."
But into this perfect storm of muddled minds and soaring stress levels, Prof Cropley is keen to inject some calm. In his new book, The Off Switch, he outlines an arsenal of techniques to reduce the time it takes to unwind in the evening - on average, between 30 and 90 minutes - by half.
Here's how to retrain your brain to switch off, at your own speed.
How to Switch Off
A 2013 study of 300 white-collar workers, which Prof Cropley co-authored, found that those who valued leisure time, and scheduled activities they enjoyed, were more able to detach from work. And while the average worker fails to use six days of paid leave each year, accounting firm Ernst & Young found that for every additional 10 hours off, employees' annual performance ratings improved by 8 per cent.
Imagine driving a car all day at 100mph - and then pulling in to a residential area. Unless you check your speed, you're heading for disaster. "It's the same with work," says Prof Cropley. "Establishing an 'unwinding ritual' at the end of the working day trains your mind to slow down. During the last half an hour, only begin jobs that are easy to complete, make a to-do list for the next day, clear your desk. With time, your mind and body will come to anticipate winding down."
Having regular breaks throughout the day is also essential as it stops you from racing into overdrive. "Take a 10- minute break every couple of hours, and at least half an hour for lunch." And plan your leisure time just as you plan work time. "Once at home, if you sit around with nothing to do, your mind will quickly make the short leap back to work," he says. "Timetable events: organise to cook a meal, an evening out with friends or work in the garden." If it's in the diary, it's more likely to happen.
While you Commute
"The shortest route to changing your thought pattern is to find a task that is the total opposite to your work and completely absorbs the mind," says Prof Cropley. "For an accountant who looks at a screen for 10 hours a day, cycling home - a physical activity where you have to be aware of traffic around you - is ideal." In a survey of 2,500 cycle commuters published last year, 89 per cent said cycling helped them to switch off from the working day. People who drive to and from work are the most stressed and least able to concentrate, according to a 2014 study by the University of East Anglia - even public transport was found to be better for stress levels, because it provides time to socialise or read. On more mindless forms of transport try the 10-minute ''body scan": "Take a breath in and focus on the sensation - the air rushing through your nose, your chest rising - then breathe out. Let your mind travel all around your body, feeling every movement and concentrating on the present. If a thought comes to mind, acknowledge it, but - like a passing cloud - let it drift off again." As your breathing slows, your blood pressure will drop and muscles naturally relax.
A third of Britons watch three hours of television or more per day - but, explains Prof Cropley, "if you are mentally tired, sitting down and watching television is probably the least effective way to unwind. If you look at a screen all day, you need to use different physiological and psychological resources than those which you use all day at work." Instead, he advises to establish a restorative place - somewhere you feel comfortable, happy and relaxed - and spend 20 minutes there. "It could be a favourite armchair or a spot in the garden," says Prof Cropley. "It doesn't necessarily have to be a place of solitude. The point is it is your space to settle inner tension, allowing for the renewal of one's coping resources, contemplation and buying time to gather thoughts."
Crucially, create a relaxing ritual that tells the brain that the working day is over. "Getting changed and having a shower as soon as you arrive home signals to the brain that you have finished for the day, as can short household chores - so long as you don't usually see them as work."
It may seem counterintuitive, but a blast of activity after a long day can refresh as much as a rest. "A good hobby not only distracts, it also demands our attention without too much mental energy. Make time for something you have a natural interest in; dancing, running, gardening or reading, it doesn't matter," says Prof Cropley. People who dedicate time to something not only feel happier and less stressed - they also perform better at work. According to research by Dr Kevin Eschleman at San Francisco State University, the less relevant the pastime is to one's job, the greater the effect on workplace performance.
After an Argument
Suppressing thoughts can keep you raging. You need to process them thoroughly to return to neutral. "Writing down thoughts and feelings is a cathartic exercise and reprocesses memories," explains Professor Cropley. But don't stew on them: "Once you've got it all out, rip it up and throw it away." Dr Hal Shorey, a psychologist at Widener University, Pennsylvania, says the golden rule to making up after an argument is to wait until you are both no longer upset before talking.
Get into the habit of switching off your phone after work or, at the very least, your emails. The daily bombardment of information from texts, emails and social media takes up neural resources and causes "decision fatigue", according to neuroscientist Daniel Levitin in his new book, The Organised Mind. Instead, he recommends checking emails in concerted clumps, just two or three times a day, rather than as they come in.
Also, contrary to popular belief, jotting down midnight worries may be a stimulant, rather than a relaxant. "It's a subconscious prompt to thinking about work." Instead, he says, you need to learn how to "park that thought" - dedicate a strict 10 minutes to thinking about something then agree to return to it the next day when you are calmer."
Also, if you often find you're waking in the middle of the night worrying, it may be because you lay in bed worrying before you first drifted off so sleep experts advise getting up and doing something else, in another room, until you're feeling sleepy. This helps to keep negative thoughts out of the bedroom.