There’s a Downside to Keeping Your Work Separate From Your Personal Life

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Photo: Frank Gaglione/Frank Gaglione

We often talk about work-life separation as the key to work-life balance: Keep your work email on your phone, don’t answer messages on the weekend, and generally draw a hard line between your time in the office and your life outside of it. These are all noble goals, and healthy ones; as Science of Us has reported, spending too much time on the job can mess with your health, chip away at your emotional intelligence, and even make you a less productive employee.

But maybe, in your quest for a personal life untainted by work angst, you’re going about things all wrong. In a column published today in Harvard Business Review, management researcher David Burkus makes the case for integrating, not separating — a counterintuitive strategy, sure, but one that research suggests may actually be less taxing for stressed-out employees.

The crux of the argument comes down to “cognitive role transition,” a concept psychologists use to explain what happens “when you’re actively engaged in one role, but experience thoughts of feelings related to a different role,” Burkus writes. “Often these transition are easy and fleeting (such as remembering a parent’s birthday during a night out with friends), but the more separate the roles in your life, the bigger than transition.” If you make it a point to ignore work emails between Friday night and Monday morning, for example, then on the rare occasion when you break your own rule, the act will feel that much more mentally draining.

That’s the major finding of a study published earlier this year in the journal Human Relations. After surveying more than 600 workers, the study authors discovered that people who had more porous boundaries between work and life outside the office — or what the researchers called “role integration” — had more cognitive role transitions, but “were also less depleted by them,” Burkus writes. “Moreover, when people tried to keep work and home life separate, their cognitive role transitions were more likely to take more effort and thus hurt their performance.” On the flip side, people who allowed one to bleed into the other tended to transition between cognitive roles with relative ease.

Burkus, who was not involved with the study, offered up a few of the potential reasons as to why: “It could be that, because work and life are more closely integrated and less separate, it’s just easier for those individuals to push a home-related thought out of their mind, knowing they’ll be back in the home role sooner,” he wrote, or perhaps “the more frequent role transitions makes it easier for those individuals to push the thought out of their mind with less willpower.” Either way, you can flip the study findings to your advantage — next time your boss catches you texting a friend or scrolling through Facebook, just explain that psychology’s on your side.

The Downside to Separating Work From Your Personal Life