In the last few decades, technology has only amplified our culture of overwork and burnout. It’s now become a badge of honor in the workplace to be the person who responds to an email within minutes—regardless of the hour. The idea of being available and responsive at all times—in the middle of the night or the wee hours of the morning—is now standard operating procedure in much of the business world, accepted simply as what one has to do to get succeed and get ahead. And yet the science couldn’t be more clear on how misguided this idea is: This constant connection to technology and being “always on” actually leads to less productivity, less creativity, poorer decision-making, and more mistakes. It also leads to very stressed out employees. In the American Psychological Association’s 2017 “Stress in America” survey, the people who reported the highest stress levels were workers who constantly checked their phones, even on their days off.
It can be an adjustment as a manager to encourage your employees to disconnect from work. The idea that any time not spent working is simply time wasted goes back to the Industrial Revolution. And the notion that “time is money” remains stubbornly pervasive in the corporate world. As counterintuitive as it sounds, we know now that real productivity actually comes from working smarter, not harder. It’s about our quality of work, not simply our quantity. Making sure your employees turn work off and take time for themselves is key to their success, your success and the company’s success. That’s because the employee who follows this advice is actually the one who will be able to innovate, solve problems, collaborate, create and think more strategically. And isn’t that the competitive advantage we’re all looking for when we build and lead teams?
And it’s not just about telling your employees they should disconnect—it’s even more critical for managers to lead by example. As anyone with a boss knows, there’s an implicit expectation that if the boss is working, we should be, too. If Human Resources is saying take time to recharge, but burning out and always being available are seen by employees as the way to get ahead, we know which way of working most employees will choose. So it’s key to change incentives by modeling the behavior you want your employees to follow.
Maura Thomas, an award-winning international speaker and trainer on productivity and work-life balance, wrote about this in a piece for the Harvard Business Review aptly titled, “Your Late-Night Emails Are Hurting Your Team.” “Experiments have shown that to deliver our best at work, we require downtime,” she wrote. “Time away produces new ideas and fresh insights. But your employees can never disconnect when they’re always reaching for their devices to see if you’ve emailed. Creativity, inspiration, and motivation are your competitive advantage, but they are also depletable resources that need to be recharged. Incidentally, this is also true for you, so it’s worthwhile to examine your own communication habits.”
Some companies—and countries—are already leading the way in encouraging their employees to set boundaries with technology. Earlier this year, France passed a law giving workers the “right to disconnect” from work-related technology at the end of the work day. The Ministry of Labor said the measure was “designed to ensure respect for rest periods and…balance between work and family and personal life.” As early as 2012, companies like Atos and Volkswagen were placing restrictions on email habits internally.
In 2004, the Boston Consulting Group launched a program called the “Red Zone” to identify chronic overworkers and help them avoid burnout. “A hero at BCG is not someone whose light is on at 10 at night,” Kermit King, BCG’s head of recruiting for the Americas told Fast Company. “The emphasis should be on productivity per hour, and I think there’s a point where productivity diminishes.”
Here are a few ways you can bring this better way of working to your team:
- Help your team establish “disconnect time” each week: Ask each of your employees to create a calendar invite for themselves for a weekly “disconnect time,” during which they fully unplug. This might be family dinner, an exercise class or a favorite TV show. Then help them keep that appointment every week.
- Practice what you preach: Be clear with your team about how you disconnect and share the benefits you’ve experienced. If you decide to unplug on weekends, follow through on that example by not sending or responding to emails during that time unless something is truly urgent.
- Recognize this time in team meetings: If team meetings are spent thanking the employee who answered an email at midnight, your team will never believe you truly want them to disconnect. Instead, set aside a few minutes at the end of every meeting to recognize the activities people do in their disconnect time, and to praise those who take the time to unplug and recharge.