Ensuring Sustainable High Performance in the Digital Workplace
Jana Mattern, Muenster University, firstname.lastname@example.org
Stefan Klein, Muenster University, email@example.com
Carla is a successful mid-level manager at a global IT service company. She switches
between two modes of work: (1) face to face meetings with corporate clients or technology
partners, for which she is travelling across Europe, (2) office days (at her home office or
the nearby company office, at which she is working through piles of messages (email or
otherwise), delegates and coordinates work with her team and spends some time on doing
research and preparing presentations for client events. The company has set tough perfor-
mance targets in terms of sales volume and profit margin, which force her to focus on
execution (or exploitation) rather than innovation (or exploration), despite the fact that the
company is in transition towards a more extensive consulting and innovation portfolio.
She uses smartphone and notebooks, and has developed distinctive practices of synchro-
nizing files across the different devices, sharing files with her team, clients or partners. The
work pace is relentless and she ensures to deal with her inbox of 50+ messages every day.
A good glass of wine is a regular reward at the end of the workday. The weekend is off-
limits for work and she turns off her devices for work related messages, except for emer-
gencies. However, this often requires an early start on Monday mornings in order to stay
ahead of things. She rarely meets her boss in person and has to cope with his distinctive
communication style, which is very sparse.
The fictional person represents a typical setting of occupational challenges, work rou-
tines, coping practices and technology repertoire for employees in IT services and consult-
ing. The work-setting is quite ambivalent: on the one side it is a stimulating environment,
a professional organization, with high degrees of individual freedom and a highly talented
workforce; on the other side it is a bruising workplace with increasing high performance
expectations and indirect encouragement for self-exploitation, which has been referred to
as self-endangerment. Self-endangerment captures both facets; the individuals’ willingness
to exploit themselves in hopes of meeting targets and career goals or proving their ability
to perform, and management’s indirect strategies of expecting more than can be legiti-
mately expected (Sostrin, 2016). Sostrin calls this the “hidden curriculum of work”, the
typically implicit, unwritten expectations “to manage constant change, collaborate well
with others, navigate workplace politics, and get your best work done in an environment of
shrinking resources and increasing demands ” (2016, p. 1). The description raises the issue,
whether these practices of work are facilitating well-being an whether they are sustainable.
Our study looks at a sample of high performing individuals who IBM has selected as
participants in its High Performer Program, which is geared towards coaching and leader-
ship development. We develop three research propositions explaining differences in the
level of sustainability among the high performers.
Theoretical framing and propositions
Salutogenesis and Sense of Coherence
In comparison to the technostress literature (e.g. Tarafdar, Gupta, & Turel, 2013), we are
less interested in the study of stressors, rather we are looking for patterns of sustainable
work in a demanding workplace. Despite similarities of the objective work situation,
individuals in our sample displayed differences in the sustainability of their performance.
We view sustainability as the individuals’ ability to continue the same pace of work and
high level of performance in an environment that is rapidly changing and characterized by
ongoing challenges (Zautra, 2009).
Emphasizing sustanability is in line with the perspective of Salutogenesis, coined by
Antonovsky (1979), who aims to understand why some individuals, regardless of major
stressful situations and severe hardships, stay healthy while others do not, and how they
retain a sense of control over their daily lives. Antonovsky’s core concept is the Sense of
Coherence (SoC), which describes how individuals successfully cope with hardships and
stress. SoC is characterised by comprehensibility (the stimuli derived from one’s internal
and external environments in the course of living are structured, predictable, and
explicable); manageability (resources are available to meet the demands posed by these
stimuli); meaningfulness (the demands are challenges, worthy of investment and
engagement) (1987). Applied to the work setting, SoC means that employees make sense
of job demands and do not see them merely as problems or stressors but as challenges
which is associated with positive psychological and physical adjustment (Roesch, Weiner,
& Vaughn, 2002). Perceiving personal resources as sufficient to cope with the situation can
lead to actively shaping the job according to one’s needs, otherwise called crafting work
(Wrzesniewski & Dutton, 2001). Proposition 1 is thus:
P1: Sustainable high performers have a strong Sense of Coherence.
Having a high SoC is necessary for trusting personal resources and the manageability of
the environment. SoC enables the development and application of strategies to cope with
demands by crafting work to achieve well-being. Researchers have identified recovery
strategies and above all detachment as a requirement for employees to stay healthy and
maintain their level of performance (Binnewies, Sonnentag, & Mojza, 2010; Sonnentag &
Fritz, 2007; Trougakos, Beal, Green, & Weiss, 2008). According to the stressor-detachment
model, demanding work conditions (e.g. time pressure, work overload, interruptions) lead
to strain reactions (physiological responses like increased heart rate, and poor sleep quality
or psychological responses like negative affect and impaired well-being) and detachment
is required to recover from this strain. Psychological detachment is defined by disengaging
physically and psychologically from the job (Sonnentag & Fritz, 2015). The concept takes
into account the allostatic load model (McEwen, 1998) which states that strain reactions
are activated even when the stressor is no longer present. Employees might not physically
be at work, however, the mere possibility to engage with their job via technology can have
detrimental effects on their well-being. Psychological detachment is a requirement for
employees’ well-being and thus for staying healthy despite a high amount of stressors;
therefore propositions 2 and 3 are:
P2: Sustainable high performers have developed a portfolio of different detachment
P3: Sustainable high performers develop detachment routines consciously and
Sample and data collection
In line with the salutogenetic approach, we studied individuals who are successfully cop-
ing with the challenges of their workplace and identified factors that differentiate them
from individuals in the same environment who show signs of stress. We have been piggy-
backing on IBM’s sampling of high performers in sales related positions (leading 10% by
IBM metrics) and joined a few of their workshops as external consultants to investigate the
level of sustainability among the high performers.
We assessed well-being as indicator for sustainable, healthy work practices by 24h heart
rate variability (HRV) measurements using small bio-sensor devices. HRV is influenced by
the dynamic balance of sympathetic and parasympathetic autonomic nervous system and
thus describes the ability to constantly adjust bodily functions. Research has found HRV to
be a valid method for the measurement of autonomic occupational effects, e.g. work envi-
ronment, workloads, and working time (Togo & Takahashi, 2009).We combined the phys-
iological measures with semi-structured interviews to take a deep dive into the high per-
formers’ strategies of crafting their job. This multi-method approach provides rich data to
explore patterns of sustainable work.
Based on the HRV data, we distinguished three categories of stress level with the help of
an expert in coaching and HRV analysis: exhausted, mediocre and sustainable. We found
that only about a third could be labeled as sustainable high performers meaning they dis-
played a physiological stress level that indicated a positive well-being despite of the high
level of performance.
We analyzed the interviews using SoC and detachment as the conceptual framework that
guided the analysis being open to other themes that emerged during the coding (Carroll &
Swatman, 2000). We identified statements concerning the three main characteristics of SoC:
comprehensibility, manageability and meaningfulness and coded whether these arguments
support a high SoC or indicate attitudes contradicting a SoC. Moreover, we analyzed which
detachment strategies the high performers deployed and how these strategies are applied.
By comparing stressed high performers with sustainable high performers, we coded how
consciously and rigorously the employees detached.
Findings and discussion
Sense of Coherence
Exhausted high performers emphasize the inpredictability of their job. They describe
how their work-life balance can vary wildly from one week to the next and how they have
to align their private life with their work responsibilities. Sustainable high performers
experience the same amount of disruptions and unexpected tasks that emerge during the
week. However, they manage to set clear boundaries and decide when their work has to
end and which emails can be left for the next day. By closing down their laptops, they
control when to deal with their work. This enhances the comprehensibility of the demands
their job imposes on them. Since sustainable high performers feel less often overwhelmed
by an unexpected amount of work, they are able to detach from work without having a bad
conscience regarding potential tasks that pile up in the meantime.
We found that detachment is a key element for individuals that display a high SoC. In
consciously developing strategies for boundary management, such as communicating the
end of their workday to clients and colleagues, they achieve a high manageability of job
demands. In addition, sustainable high performers who successfully detached described
having “lightbulb moments” because they are inspired by their job and feel more energetic.
Detachment makes a difference
Our analyses showed that all participants are aware of the importance of detachment but
differ in the way they applied it to their workday. For individuals who work at a sustainable
level, a high SoC supports their view of detachment as a holistic perception of what matters.
They do not see detachment as a sort of remedy, required for maintaining the pace of work
but as a key element of their daily rhythm. Conversely, individuals with a high stress level
do not consciously apply detachment strategies to their workday. They claim to work at a
sustainable level and to manage detaching from their work, yet, at the same time, find
excuses why failing to detach from their job has been a necessary concession to work
related demands. The individuals in this group often underestimate their physiological
High performers have managed to develop flexible portfolios of detachment strategies.
We have identified six distinct strategies (detachment categories).
Saying “no” and actively communicating detachment. This strategy refers to saying
no to others as well as to open mails and pending tasks. Employees who apply this strategy
have learned that there will never be a point when work ends so it is important to set
boundaries so that they can create time slots during which detachment can occur. They set
rules like “no calls after 6 p.m.” and communicate these to colleagues, managers and clients.
Sports and other mental and physical activities as detachment. A prevalent detach-
ment strategy is doing sports, going for a walk or doing other physical activities like refur-
bishing a house. Individuals describe how they could clear their mind and stop thinking
about work since they concentrated on something else.
Detaching digitally. Detaching digitally means literally switching devices off. Employ-
ees would shut down electronic devices that connect them to their job during non-work
time. Some would leave their phone uncharged during holidays, others possess one phone
for work and one for private use and switch between the two devices after work.
Detaching physically/spatially. Gaining physical or spatial distance is an important way
of detachment. This can include stepping away from the desk during breaks, or finding an
end to their workday through commuting back home from the office.
Social activities as detachment. Employees report the positive effect that meeting
friends and seeking social support had on their level of detachment. They highlight the
difference between work related talks and talks with their friends who were no colleagues.
Detaching emotionally. Emotionally detaching refers to the ability to ‘call it a day’ with-
out having a bad conscience. Employees who report this strategy have managed to find an
end to their workday without fearing reverberations or negative consequences from the part
of their managers.
Conclusion and outlook
Our research extends the literature on occupational stress and well-being by triangulating
quantitative measurements (HRV) with qualitative interviews. We have identified and dis-
tinguished six detachment strategies, whereas earlier literature focused on single detach-
ment strategies like emotional detachment (Dolan, Strodl, & Hamernik, 2012) or taking
breaks (Fritz, Ellis, Demsky, Lin, & Guros, 2013). Our findings suggest that detachment is
a key element to sustainable high performance. In relating detachment to the concept of
Sense of Coherence, we have been able to more clearly delineate between successful de-
tachment, which is embedded in a broader concept of meaning on the one side and ‘instru-
mental’ detachment, which is perceived as an obligation or even a burden during periods
of peak workload. The nuanced and contextualized view of detachment extends previous
research. It might also explain why for some, a good night’s sleep might yield moments of
‘enlightenment’ the next morning, e.g. innovative ideas, solutions to issues they have been
pondering, whereas for others ruminating over problems keeps them awake at night. Future
research might include this effect of deliberation without attention (Dijksterhuis, Bos,
Nordgren, & Van Baaren, 2006). In addition to the theoretical contribution, this research
can enrich human resources management in providing a basis for interventions to improve
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