Switch Off Work To Improve Health & Cognitive Performance

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James Hewitt is a performance scientist, and Chief Commercial & Innovation Officer at OPTIVIO.

In an ideal world, we would be able to switch on our brains and focus whenever we need to, then switch off and relax, whenever we want to. Unfortunately, for many of us, this just isn’t the case. In fact, it’s been estimated that up to 70% of workers ruminate or worry about work issues at one time or another1.

Some studies suggest that high ruminators — people who have particular difficulty switching off from work — are twice as likely to experience issues with poor executive control1. Executive control is associated with the activity in the prefrontal cortex and includes high-level cognitive processes such as: 

  • Planning

  • Working memory

  • Inhibition

  • Mental flexibility

We are not machines, and we can’t always be “on.” So, why is it so difficult to switch off and recover when we want to?

Interrupt the Negative Spiral

One of the challenges with rumination is that it can set off a negative spiral. Persistent thoughts make it difficult to switch off, which may further compromise the very cognitive abilities we need to detatch, making the situation worse. Consequently, we need to find techniques to interrupt this cycle. For many of us, it’s just not that easy to detach, which means that this is a skill we need to re-learn. Here are three powerful ways to improve your ability to switch off, recover and improve cognitive performance. 

Shift Your Thinking From ‘”Why To “How”

We can struggle to switch off because our thoughts are often ‘attached’ to emotions. And “why” thoughts are often the most sticky and emotional. For example, you might find yourself repeatedly thinking, “why do they always ask me to do everything at the last minute?” By shifting “why” thoughts to “how” thoughts they become less sticky which takes away their power. We can shift to “how” thoughts by thinking of one useful action we can take, even if it doesn’t immediately fix the situation.

In practice, when you notice a “why” thought hanging around, write down a “how” action. For example, if you keep thinking, “why do they always ask me to everything at the last minute,” even writing a note to schedule some time to speak with that person about this issue, can help you to detach from the thought.

Measure Your Ability to “Switch Off”

In 2012, Professor Mark Cropley and a group of researchers developed a survey to measure different types of thinking about work, sometimes called the “Work-related Thoughts” questionnaire2. The questionnaire identified three types of thinkers:

  • Affective Ruminators: Affective ruminators often find it difficult to switch off emotionally from work-related thoughts. They may become tense and frustrated because they cannot stop thinking about work.

  • Problem-Solving Ponderers: Problem-solving ponderers think about and ponder on work-related issues when they are not at work. This may be because they enjoy their work, and the mental challenges work gives them.

  • Detachers: Detachers tend to switch off very quickly after they leave work.


Improve Your Health and Cognitive Performance

Don’t be afraid to experiment. If you notice that persistent thoughts are negatively affecting your ability to switch off, try the “why to how” technique for a couple of weeks, and see whether it has made a difference. Comment below and let us know what works for you!


1. Cropley M, Zijlstra FRH, Querstret D, Beck S, Fila MJ. Is Work-Related Rumination Associated with Deficits in Executive Functioning ? 2016;7(September):1–8.

2. Cropley M, Michalianou G, Pravettoni G, Millward LJ. The relation of post-work ruminative thinking with eating behaviour. Stress Heal. 2012;28(1):23–30.


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