Volume 89, Issue 3 p. 493-514
Original Article

Successfully leaving work at work: The self-regulatory underpinnings of psychological detachment

Brandon W. Smit

Corresponding Author

Brandon W. Smit

Department of Psychological Sciences, Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana, USA

Correspondence should be addressed to Brandon W. Smit, Department of Psychological Sciences, Ball State University, North Quad Building, Muncie, IN 47306, USA (email: [email protected]).Search for more papers by this author
First published: 12 November 2015
Citations: 51


Detaching from work – defined as mentally and physically disengaging from work during off-hours – is an important prerequisite to effective daily recovery and psychological well-being. However, the extant literature has yet to articulate exactly why some employees fail to detach from work and, furthermore, offers few concrete recommendations on how to increase detachment on a daily basis. I illustrate how both of these limitations may be resolved by extending the definition of psychological detachment to more clearly specify from what employees are failing to detach. Drawing from self-regulation research, the theoretical framework developed in this study proposes that employees' minds continue to linger over goal-related content after the workday is finished. This proposition was supported in a longitudinal sample of 103 employees pursuing 1,127 goals. Consistent with a self-regulatory perspective, employees had more difficulty detaching from incomplete (vs. completed) work goals later in the day, especially when these goals possessed high valence. Furthermore, an experimental manipulation demonstrated that creating plans to resolve incomplete goals increased psychological detachment among employees with traits that chronically inhibit detachment. I discuss how this refined conceptualization of psychological detachment catalyses future theoretical development and provides groundwork for evidence-based interventions.

Practitioner points

  • Creating plans at the end of the day that describe where, when, and how unfulfilled work goals will be completed is an effective, low-cost intervention that enhances psychological detachment among employees, which will ultimately improve occupational health and performance.
  • The planning intervention was primarily effective among employees who typically have difficulty detaching from work during leisure time, indicating that intervention efforts should be targeted at specific types of employees.
  • When setting daily work goals, employees should be encouraged to focus on smaller, concrete goals at the end of the day in order to reduce unfulfilled work goals and facilitate psychological detachment.