What the heck is FOBO, and why is it normalizing workplace anxiety?


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There’s an iconic scene in The Devil Wears Prada in which total boss babe Andy Sachs tosses her phone into a Parisian fountain and smiles happily as she rides off into the sunset. She’s unfettered by modern technology and her work; she’s become as unchained as a dandelion fluff in the wind. Sound something like your wildest fantasy? Makes sense, since being unplugged is so freeing, but for so many of us, the fear of being offline—or FOBO—is also a nightmarish reality.

Well, for all you eager employees, here’s how to banish FOBO and metaphorically toss your own phone into a fountain. (But without, y’know, quitting your job and instead just setting realistic workplace expectations).

What is FOBO, anyway?

FOBO, the fear of being offline, refers to the anxiety related to missing something important if you’re not plugged in at. all. times. It’s that separation anxiety you feel if you don’t have your phone on you; the panic that comes upon realizing the hotel where you’re staying doesn’t have good Wi-Fi; the urge to check Instagram every five minutes.

FOBO is that separation anxiety you feel if you don’t have your phone on you; the panic that comes upon realizing the hotel where you’re staying doesn’t have good Wi-Fi; the urge to check Instagram every five minutes.

It’s not exactly news that most of us (save for a few precious unicorns) worship at the altar of fast Wi-Fi and an unhindered ability to be reachable at all times. There are pros and cons to this, as with most things, but FOBO poses some consequences that are seriously bad for mental health. In fact, experts say the fear of being offline is ushering in a new wave of workaholism.

Photo: Getty Images/Demaerre

How does FOBO up the ante on workplace anxiety?

Licensed psychologist and career coach Ashley Hampton, PhD, says she’s seen an uptick in FOBO-fueled workplace anxiety. “Because you can always be reachable, people think you should always be reachable,” she says. But this might just be an expectation we’re setting up for ourselves. “People don’t expect an immediate response. We just think they do.”

Clinical psychologist Kevin Gilliland, PsyD, adds that a competitively ambitious component is also at play with FOBO. “If we’re offline, what can start to creep in is fear and anxiety that if you don’t respond, someone else is going to beat you to it and you may miss out on a promotion or an opportunity,” he says. Or, you fear that something could go wrong and you aren’t able to address it ASAP, which means you could get in trouble. Here’s the thing, though: For most of us, the world will not end if we do not respond to an email within five minutes. (Alas, I write this while working away at 10pm on a Friday.)

“If we’re offline, what can start to creep in is fear and anxiety that if you don’t respond, someone else is going to beat you to it and you may miss out on a promotion or an opportunity.” —clinical psychologist Kevin Gilliland, PsyD

Naturally, Dr. Gilliland says, there are exceptions: If you’re on deadline, have a big project that you know you need to check on, or are literally set to “on call” duty as a doctor, sure. “But we’re not talking about those because in those situations, it’s appropriate.” he says. It’s all the other times you compulsively check your email and stay connected well past normal work hours that become the issue.

In fact, being “on” at all times can actually lead to lowered productivity, because in addition to being online long after normal work hours, FOBO can instill a need to do everything at once. “Something like 20 to 30 seconds is what your brain needs to shift from one task to another,” Dr. Hampton explains. “Let’s say you’re writing and you’re like, ‘oh, I should check my email.’ You stop writing, go check your email, respond to one or two things, and then you come back to writing. But it’s not an automatic return back to where you were in the sentence,” she says. That well-intentioned yet frenetic time certainly starts to add up.

So, how can you turn FOBO in JOBO?

First put your phone out of sight. Dr. Hampton says this physical distance pushes away the worry about notifications you might be getting. Second, only check your emails twice a day. Okay, okay, that one may require some fine-tuning to fit your life and career, but Dr. Hampton says the practice increases her productivity. It allows her to take the time to read and respond to her emails, rather than half-reading them while doing other tasks, then forgetting to respond and wondering a number of days later whether it’s too weird to reply so late.

Dr. Gilliland suggests applying a dose of mindfulness before responding to an after-hours email. Ask yourself: Can it really not wait until the next morning? “We can’t make up for poor structure by taking a vacation one week out of the year,” he says. “We’ve got to be able to implement that and to do that as many evenings as possible and as many weekends as possible.”

Basically, try to reimagine your after-hours time OOO time—unless there’s an emergency or an extenuating circumstance, vacation rules should apply (and, BTW, you should certainly be unplugging on those vacations, which you should be taking, period). Realize that with FOBO, you’re most often your harshest critic, and that once you can start treating yourself to some digital-limits self-care, you’ll be able to reimagine the anxiety-heightening condition into a thing of joy—or JOBO.

Need more help de-stressing? Here’s how to fight anxiety, based on your astrological sign. And, these are the 12 best destinations for a much-needed digital detox.

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