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You Can’t Work 24/7: The Problem with Our Always On Culture.

Your employees need time off. That's why letting them be bombarded by emails at all hours causes such problems. Let's talk about how to fix this.

Resist Always On Culture – and Remember that, Sometimes, You Just Need to Stop Working.

This article originally appeared at Gen-i’

I’m not the first person to point it out; it’s rather a topic that has a lot of space in public conversation. Despite this, however, there’s little sign that anyone is really doing much to manage this always on culture.

What is it I’m talking about? The blurriness of the border between work and down time, the leakage of work into time that properly belongs to the rest of your life.

We all know this feeling. The ‘I’m sorry it’s late, but could you just do x?’ text. The email that arrives over an evening dinner. Even the phone call that comes with an urgent task.

For some, such after-hour demands can make life difficult. They can interrupt time spent with their kids or family. They are contributors to poor mental health – with studies showing increased anxiety and dips in relationship satisfaction and wellbeing. And they produce tired, overstretched, and less productive workers.

This isn’t okay. And whilst people find it easy to identify these problems, few businesses make an effort to change their practice to stop the behaviour that causes them. Rather, these days, governments are getting involved, passing legislation aiming to ban after-hour emails outright or giving workers the right to demand clarity on the expectations upon them.

However, as Camille Preston suggests, maybe this isn’t the best way to manage this problem. Rather, employers should take this into their own hands – for the benefit of their employees, the benefit of themselves, and the benefit of their businesses.

Let’s look at some ways that you can do this.

The Issue with ‘Always On Culture’.

I’ve talked a lot here about ways to find a good work-life balance. Yet, whilst you might be personally convinced of the benefits of this – and whilst you might be putting steps in place to get your own balance in shape – it’s admittedly pretty difficult if the rest of your team or your employees are not on board.

So, you may well know the problems of continuous connectedness – and the things that you are feeling are probably felt by lots of other people too. Nonetheless, you may be surprised at the extent of the damage it can do.

Expectation.

Because, whilst, as noted above, working after hours can cause anxiety, stress, and a general reduction in well-being, you don’t actually needto do any work for this anxiety to be there. 

Rather, studies have shown that the mere expectation of receiving work emails after hours produces the same effects. You don’t need to even open the emails to experience symptoms of diminished mental health.

Your Family.

The difficult part of all this is that it is not only you that is being hurt by this culture. Rather, researchers have evidencethat the mental health of your family is being adversely affected too.

If you are bringing your work home, this probably means that you are neglecting the expectations that other people have on you.

I knew someone that used to hide her father’s phone in the evenings and on holidays so that he couldn’t possibly use it even if he wanted to. And whilst, yes, this was surely very annoying (!), it’s worth remembering that it’s not just your work that deserves – and wants – your time.

HOW to Let Your Employees Switch Off.

Now you know the effect that after-hours availability has on you and those around you. But what can be done about it?

A change in this regard requires transformations in attitude and in the ‘assets’ of your organisation.

Be Clear about Your Expectations.

In France, it’s now a legal requirement for new employees to receive written clarification of their after-hour expectations when they sign a contract of employment. Whilst this not the law in the UK, one of the best ways to manage your employees’ expectations is to be clear with them from the beginning.

Do you need them to be available in the evenings the week before each quarterly deadline, say? Do you want them to be prepared to be available one night a week? Should they be reachable before seven in the evening?

This sort of clarity provides the boundaries that reduce the ill effects of after-work availability.

Improve Productivity During the Day.

People might wonder why anyone needs to send an email at ten in the evening if they had been productively at work all day.

One way to stop your employees’ feeling that they need to work all evening might be to increase productivity at work. Preston, in the article to which I link above, suggests rearranging your office to mitigate distraction. Otherwise, you could encourage your staff to start task-batching, ‘getting things done’, or sleeping well.

An always on culture would not be necessary if people were to work more productively.

Think Before You Bother.

Okay, does that email or text you are about to send, does that need to be sent and read now? Is the task that you want done actually pressing – or do you think it could wait until tomorrow?

Part of the problem that Preston mentions is that we are endlessly in something of a ‘crisis’ mode – in which every task we have is super, undelayably urgent. In reality, this is not actually true.

So, before you send that email and disturb your staff’s family time, think again about whether it’s really necessary.

See How Your Staff are Doing.

This one is an obvious one really: talk to your teams about how they feel about their out of hours work. Is it bothering them?

The important thing here is striving to foster a culture of honesty. You have to be able to listen well in order for them to talk frankly.

If they do report problems with the demands on them out of hours, work alongside them to come up with new ways to manage the problem. Those affected by a problem are usually the best sources of solutions.

Try a Straight-up Ban.

If none of these seem to be working, there is always the drastic option: just ban work chat after hours.

Some firms have had their company technicians put a block on all night-time emails. These can prevent employees on work addresses from receiving any emails between set hours.

However, it obviously doesn’t stop people from phoning up or texting. At this point, make it clear company policy that there is no obligation for anyone to reply to work communication outside of formal work hours.

If you aren’t doing it, then your teams probably won’t do it either. So lead them, by example, into a proper work-life balance.

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