Today, the line between work and home life has become blurred for millions of office-based workers. Between email and omnipresent smartphones, tablets, and computers, work messages and calls are omnipresent. While many people appreciate the flexibility resulting from these technological advances, others suffer.
‘Always-on’ culture results in unspoken pressure to respond to work emails and answer calls at all times. And it takes a psychological toll. In a recent study, 28% of office workers said they were unable to switch off during their free time, and 20% reported mental exhaustion. The result? Anxiety disorders and burnout.
The Cost of Always-On Culture
In the US, businesses lose an annual $210 billion to depression among their employees. Estimates say that the global economic costs of mental health disorders could tally in at a striking $16 trillion by 2030.
These numbers show why it is vital to provide a work environment that is beneficial to the mental health of employees. A study presented at the annual conference of the British Psychological Society in 2019 underlines this: Those suffering from the effects of always-on culture show higher workplace engagement, but lower levels of job satisfaction. Unsurprisingly, they often develop resentment for their jobs.
Battling Always-On Mentality
With omnipresent phones and screens, answering work emails and taking calls deep into the night, or at the crack of dawn, has become something of a badge of honor. On-call time is equated with engagement and productivity, to be rewarded with praise.
Over time, this has often made company culture reach deeply into private life, and blind to the mental health problems the always-on mindset causes in employees.
Battling always-on culture and its detrimental effects requires an overhaul of intrusive company culture.
1 – Make Your Expectations Clear
A large part of the stress of getting work calls during free time is not knowing when such calls could come in. Just expecting a possible call leads people to constantly check their phones, causing anxiety and stress.
Prevent this by making your expectations apparent from the start.
In 2017, France became the first country to pass legislation protecting employees’ right to disengage from always-on culture. The law obliges employers to explicitly state requirements for after-hours availability in work contracts. And to stick to these limits.
Such legislation is still in the making for the rest of the world. Legal requirements aside, clear availability requirements are an excellent strategy to alleviate employee stress. Rather than suffer from the insidious pressure to be available 24/7, employees will have a real chance to disengage from work entirely.
2 – Set Boundaries
Once you have defined expectations of when employees need to be reachable outside office hours, you need to instate boundaries and ensure that they are respected.
In this, technology is your ally. The settings of many modern business platforms and phone systems can set extensions to be reachable only during certain hours. Voicemails or emails that come in during off-hours only appear in inboxes at the start of a workday.
Make it clear that being on call 24/7 is not only not a badge of honor, but actively discouraged.
3 – Firmly Define ‘Urgent’
Many a late-night work email’s subject line begins with ‘urgent’. Or, worse, ‘URGENT’. Only a fraction of these emails is, in fact, so important and so immediately relevant they cannot wait until the morning. Even knowing this, seeing ‘urgent’ in a subject line can make any recipient’s heart rate spike.
To keep pulse rates low and healthy, clearly define what qualifies as an urgent message to your team. Just how immediately important does it have to be to justify an off-hours call or mail?
Once an official definition is set down, the volume of ‘urgent’ emails or calls usually goes down. They shift to more appropriate times, or evaporate.
4 – Promote Taking Time Off
While you’re discouraging the blurring of the life-work divide, you should also promote the ‘life’ part of that equation. Remind employees to make use of all their holiday days, spend time with their loved ones, free from work-related interruptions.
In the long run, having employees return from holidays relaxed and with freed-up mental space will reward you with a more resilient team.
5 – Lead by Example
Managers and team leaders are often those who find it most difficult to let go. Even on holiday, many of them call in daily to check in at the office.
To promote a healthy work-life balance, and encourage your team members to take time off to recharge, it’s best you lead by example.
For one, it’s highly effective in demonstrating that it is acceptable to disconnect from work life. For another, it also demonstrates that you trust your team.
A Strong Basis of Happier, Healthier Employees
If your goal is to maximize team productivity, all these measures may sound counter intuitive – because on the face of it, always-on culture boosts work output.
Once you objectively weigh the benefits of a mentally resilient group of employees, happy in their jobs, these strategies become justified.
At the end of the day, encouraging a healthy divide between work and free time results in equal, if not higher productivity than implicitly requiring 24/7 availability. Because the most productive employees are those who are healthy and satisfied.