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Switching Off the Always-on Culture

Helping Employees Cut Their Electronic Tether

How much communication is too much communication? In the modern workforce, the answer is both too much — and not enough.

“Electronic tethering” has created an environment in which people feel pressured to stay in touch with work via email, as well as various social media, and respond immediately, even outside of standard work hours. That sense of constant contact has blurred the lines between work and personal life, and boosted anxiety and stress levels among employees.

The issue has gotten enough attention that France passed a law regarding employees’ “right to disconnect,” with other European countries following suit. Earlier this year, the New York City Council held a public hearing on a similar law, though the proposal is still in development.

Jen Fisher, chief well-being officer for Deloitte, points out that technological advances such as smartphones have allowed people to cut down on work-related travel and become more flexible with their work hours. But Fisher and other experts say that the lack of a meaningful conversation about how to control technology — rather than letting it control us — has contributed to an “always-on” culture.

“If you look at how quickly this technology has become embedded in every aspect of our life, it has happened faster than any event in human history,” Fisher said. “We were all so focused on the excitement of the technology that along the way, we forgot to say, ‘Do we really want this embedded in every aspect of our lives? And if we do, what are some of the boundaries that we need to put in place so that we don’t see these negative impacts that we’re starting to see now?’”

Working on Overdrive

After-hours work is on the rise for all employees. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, nearly half of all employed workers reported working at home.

Another study found that employees’ use of email adds an average of eight to nine hours of work outside regular business hours — essentially adding an entire day to the work week, said William Becker, an associate professor of management at Virginia Tech.

However, it’s not the amount of time that employees put in after hours that creates the problem, said Becker, who has spent nearly a decade studying the effects of electronic tethering. Rather, employees report that their stress arises from the mere expectation that they will always be available and responsive.

“If someone just checks their email twice a night and spends the rest of the time with their family or doing things that they enjoy, it’s just part of the job,” Becker said. “But when they’re checking constantly, they are never engaging in their real lives. They are never fully shifting from the work mindset to the life mindset. So, we never get that really caring, attentive spouse or father or mother at home.”

Becker speaks from experience. He became interested in the impact of technology on employee well-being due to a family member whose new boss demanded round-the-clock connection via email. If the supervisor did not get an immediate response, she would send progressively scathing emails, Becker said.

Becker’s family member had worked for the same company for 15 years. After only three months in her new role, she quit the job and left the company, Becker said.

Although this woman encountered an extreme form of pressure from her always-on manager, her experience was relevant in that most employees take their cues from their supervisor.

“For the front-line employees, that expectation is coming down from the behaviors of the more senior people,” Becker said. “Even if it’s not codified, you need to look at what people are doing in the organization. It’s funny how it’s informal, but it’s certainly strong. That makes the expectation even stronger, potentially, than if it was written down.”

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Personality types also play a large role in how workers respond to after-hours emails, said John Hackston, head of thought leadership at The MyersBriggs Co., one of the world’s largest business psychology providers. For example, extroverts tend to send and receive more emails than their introverted colleagues. In addition, people who have a strong preference for keeping their work and personal lives separate seem to experience more stress from receiving after-hours emails, Hackston said.

Always-on workers experience heightened anxiety and stress, and an increase in illnesses linked to hypertension, said Dr. Eudene Harry, author and director of a holistic health clinic in Florida. That’s because people do not have the time to rest and rejuvenate from day to day, Harry said.

“We’ve evolved to the point where technology can override our natural rhythm, but it’s not the same thing as our natural rhythm changing,” Harry said. “If you’re overriding that natural rhythm all the time, you’re not giving your body the chance to do what it is designed to do. You wouldn’t think of driving your car until the point where you’re out of gas and you need a tune up. Ultimately, we will start to feel the impact of that, and become less productive even though in our minds we feel like we’re getting a lot done.”

Government at the Wheel?

Corporate America has been slow to address “always-on” culture, and thus to create policies and practices that would curb incursions into workers’ personal time, said Rafael Espinal Jr., New York City councilman.

Espinal noticed that many of his Millennial peers were checking and responding to work emails after the workday ended. After reading about France’s law, which prohibits employers from taking punitive actions against employees who do not check emails after work hours, Espinal introduced his own version last year.

Espinal’s proposal would require companies to adopt a written policy about the use of electronic devices to send or receive work-related messages during non-work hours. The policy must include a description of the standard work hours for each class of employees.

Employees would still have the option of checking or responding to email during their off hours, and an additional provision allows companies to contact their employees in business-critical circumstances, Espinal said. The proposal is not about shutting down all after-hours communication, Espinal said, but about alleviating the pressure that employees may feel to always be in contact with their employers.

“There needs to be a real conversation about how workers are being exploited, and the amount of hours that we’re putting into the workplace, and the concerns around worker burnout as well,” Espinal said. “Technology has allowed employers to creep into pretty much all hours of our personal life. I think people forget there was a time when the laptop and the smartphone didn’t exist, and the world still moved.”

Espinal’s proposal identifies a key irony of the problem with too much email communication: It’s often rooted in too little communication about expectations, experts say.

A supervisor may send an email just to share a thought or to get an item off the to-do list. But without clear instructions about whether and when a response is required, an employee tends to believe that the email requires his immediate attention, Deloitte’s Fisher said. Fisher co-authored an article for Deloitte Insights last year about designing work environments to promote healthier digital habits.

“The normal tendency is that when I get an email, I’m going to respond to it right now because I don’t want it sitting in my inbox,” Fisher said. “But there are so many downstream effects that leaders need to be aware of. If I’m shooting off an email on Saturday because I want to get something off my plate, what’s the impact on the people working for me? That’s where I think organizational policies and guidelines are good to set those cultural norms, so anything that falls outside of those norms can signal to people that something is wrong.”

Curbing the E-Habit

Some companies have already responded without government intervention. For example, Volkswagen instituted a policy in 2011 that keeps about 120,000 of its German employees from receiving emails on their company-provided smartphones during off-work hours and on weekends. Volkswagen spokeswoman Christine Kuhlmeyer said that the company has gotten primarily positive feedback on the policy, which was instituted to “respect workers’ recovery times.”

“Technology has allowed employers to creep into pretty much all hours of our personal life. I think people forget there was a time when the laptop and smartphone didn’t exist, and the world still moved.”

Fewer companies in the United States have adopted policies about after-hours email usage. Deloitte is among the companies that specifically address the issue, providing training and tips about how to create boundaries around after-hours technology use. For example, some teams may have email-free weekends, and during the final week of the year, all Deloitte employees are encouraged to participate in a “collective disconnect” from office technology.

Fisher said the company takes its “collective disconnect” periods seriously, and plans client timelines around them.

“The feedback that we get from our people is that the fact that everybody was disconnected and had that permission (to disconnect) made it powerful for everyone,” Fisher said. “It is really rejuvenating, and everyone comes back and feels recovered and ready to dive back into the work.”

Trisha L. Howard Trisha L. Howard is a contributing writer for WorldatWork.


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