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Why it’s time to disconnect from work with confidence

Gina London


'I really need this,' I think, as I practise tai chi

'I really need this,' I think, as I practise tai chi

'I really need this,' I think, as I practise tai chi

Dappled sunlight filters through the lodgepole pines above me. Beneath my feet, the ground is stony, marking the rugged terrain of Orcas Island, the largest in the San Juan archipelago .

Located about 85 air miles north of Seattle, you need to either take a boat or a seaplane to get here.

I chose the faster route.

Our pilot Chuck, captain of the Kenmore Air fleet, allowed me to sit next to him in the cockpit since it was my first flight in a plane that also floats on water. The take-off and landing were incredible. I shared my exuberance with Chuck, and he told me that after 30 years of flying, remarks like mine remind him of why he gets out of bed every morning. Quick lesson, folks: don’t curb your enthusiasm.

Meeting me at the Orcas Island landing dock was Susan Scott. My dear regular readers will already know from previous columns that she is the New York Times best-selling author of two books, Fierce Conversations and Fierce Leadership. She interviewed me for her podcast from my home in Dublin and we hit it off. So, last week, I made the trek to meet her face-to-face at her home on the island.

Now, here we are on the first morning after I’ve arrived. We’re standing beneath those pines in front of her custom-built treehouse (seriously, a treehouse) as a man named Jack leads us in another first experience for me: a lesson in the Chinese martial art of tai chi.

Our instructor is a tai chi master. He guides us through movements such as “white crane spreads its wings” and “carry the tiger over the mountain”.

Our feet, hands and bodies move in connection with the inhale and exhale of our breathing. Deliberately designed to help promote focus, flexibility and balance, tai chi is often referred to as meditation in motion.

Harvard’s medical school website describes the practice as “medication in motion”. I agree.

Because although my motions are neither fluid nor smooth, while I am struggling, I am also gradually feeling my mind release itself from stressful thoughts of proposal-writing, client queries, programme outlines, learning objectives and other work-related considerations.

“I really need this,” I think, as I haltingly raise my arms, crook back my wrists and jerk my right leg into another position.

Jack adjusts my limbs to achieve the proper stance. I may look ridiculous, but I am beginning to shut off my businessy brain and that’s a good thing.

Neil Hunter, Chief Culture and People Officer at Deloitte Canada, told me during an interview that the findings from their most recent employee survey show that work has changed, and deliberate breaks are needed.

“Where does work stop and home start? How do you figure out that ‘always on’ sense?” Neil queried.

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“We’re working more hours. Early on, it was because we needed to keep our jobs. Now it’s just systemically become that work from home means an extra hour or two. It feels psychologically unsafe to say, ‘I’m just going to shut down. You guys go do what you’re going to do. I’ll just pick it up in the morning’. There’s a deeper sense of being left out. Something’s going to happen without me.”

To mitigate that concern, Neil and his team put several new principles in place. I hope your company is supporting you in a similar way. If not, perhaps you can make the following suggestions for summertime (or anytime) self-care.

1. Disconnect with confidence

“We introduced this as a formal project,” Neil said.

“We value the whole person and to make good contributions to your clients you have to feel that you’re healthy. This path we’re on is slowly but surely depleting the energy of our entire workforce. It’s back to basics. A re-introduction to the idea that you have a right to disconnect.”

2. Leaders must model behaviour

Leaders cannot simply tell their teams it’s OK to shut down while they themselves keep going at full speed.

Everyone needs to take a turn at pressing the off button.

This part of Deloitte’s disconnecting project is the critical component to its success.

“Many of our senior leaders took on this behaviour, even if they felt like they still needed to, or wanted to, work. They made themselves stop sending emails or anything to their teams,” said Neil.

“Our technology allows them to write emails, for instance, when they’re thinking of something, but then defer sending it until actual work hours. We’ve also seen a real shift in the language of people in the past month and half. Leaders are now meaning it when they say, ‘I’m taking time off. I’m not taking the work phone. You won’t be able to get a hold of me.’”

3. Hold a team pledge

This helps teams plan for the shorter, but just as necessary, breaks needed by colleagues.

“Before a project, everyone on the team will declare their boundaries,” Neil explained.

“Like, ‘I do yoga at nine, so you won’t be able to reach me,’ or ‘I have to take my kids to school and here’s the time.’ This helps everyone know ahead of time so people aren’t feeling disruptive and reluctant to make these personal decisions.”

As Jack prepared us for our next tai chi position, the more you can plan for, share and be supported in your disconnection times, the better you can take the self-care tiger – or the crane – by the tail.

Write to Gina in care of SundayBusiness@independent.ie

With corporate clients in five continents, Gina London is a premier communications strategy, structure and delivery expert. She is also a media analyst, author, speaker and former CNN anchor.

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