Written by Kevin Wood, at The Myers-Briggs Company. 7 min read
Email became commonplace in the 1990s. By 2000, cell phones were the norm, and by the time the iPhone came around, any natural barrier between the employee and off-hours work was shattered.
With each new communication app or collaboration software, the work-life divide becomes increasingly blurred.
While most of us enjoy the efficiencies and perks that come with technology, we also sense that, on balance, being constantly connected to our work is not a good thing. But we still don’t necessarily understand exactly what kind of effect it’s having on people. Are we more stressed out than our parents and grandparents? Or is it possible that, against conventional wisdom, we’re actually benefiting from the new hyper-connected business environment?
Earlier this year, my colleague—psychologist John Hackston—presented research by The Myers-Briggs Company at the British Psychology Society’s annual conference. Type and the Always-On Culture (2019) explored how personality type affects attitudes, behavior, productivity, and engagement in this environment of 24/7 connectedness. Among other things, the study found a strange interplay between connectedness, stress, and engagement.
To start, the study confirmed what many suspected about the always-on workplace culture: those who found it difficult to switch off suffered a range of negative issues, including stress, interference with home life, and being unable to focus on one thing at a time. This probably matches what a lot of us have experienced. Very few people enjoy feeling like they must respond to a work email on a Sunday morning.
What was perhaps a little more surprising was that people who were able to access work emails/calls outside of work were more engaged in their jobs. That’s right—the always-on culture is correlated with higher workplace engagement. But it comes at a price, as those same respondents reported being more stressed. The study showed that those with higher job stress were significantly less likely to be satisfied in their job.
In sum, it appears that the most passionate and dedicated employees—the ones constantly checking in, making sure loose ends are tied up, etc.—are shouldering a heavy stress burden. Let’s take a step back and look at what it’s doing to them:
- 28% said they couldn’t switch off mentally.
- 26% experienced interference with family or personal life.
- 20% reported mental exhaustion.
In all fairness, workers getting sucked into an always-on mentality is not always the product of an intrusive company culture or unreasonable demands from their employers.
People also see advantages:
- 17% of people mentioned that they liked being kept in the loop with what was going on.
- 16% liked quick responses.
- 13% liked flexibility of when and where they worked.
It appears that for a certain group of workers, the ability to connect to work anytime is appealing. Yet, the effects of it in terms of stress and burnout are decidedly unappealing, both to the employees and to their companies. The always-on culture presents a conundrum where people who love their jobs are more likely to lose any semblance of work-life balance, which in many cases leads to them disliking, and perhaps even resenting, their jobs.
This is highly problematic for companies, many of which are now in a talent war for their most valuable employees.
So, how do companies address this? For some, it means taking a look at the policies, culture and workloads that might be pressuring employees into these habits. For others, it might mean taking steps to—for lack of a better term—save enthusiastic and engaged employees from their own exuberance.
Regaining the work-life balance
Companies have an opportunity to build trust with their best employees by helping them find a better balance between work and home life. The key is to help them use the hyper-connected nature of technology to their advantage, not to their detriment. In most cases, this involves helping employees take technology with ‘portion control,’ in the same way someone on a diet might manage dessert.
Here are a few strategies for managing the always-on culture:
- Remove the temptation. As long as the work phone is on, it’ll be difficult for some employees to stem the urge to check it obsessively. If the work phone, or at least notifications, can be shut off, it’ll make it much easier for those employees to disconnect.
- Promote time away from work. Encourage employees to take all their vacation time, as well as to set aside time for work and time for family. Take steps to show that you’re a company that values and celebrates family and friends. Likewise, encourage activities such as exercise, hobbies, and recreation.
- Set boundaries. Implement policies that let employees have zones of “no availability,” where it’s understood that they shouldn’t be contacted unless it’s an extreme emergency.
- Define urgent. Often, it’s not totally clear what type of situation warrants interrupting one’s evening, weekend, or holiday. Companies can help reduce compulsive email checking by spelling it out in writing.
Technology that allows us to stay connected all the time has indisputable benefits, but also easily spirals out of control and becomes a destructive force. I believe that companies that take conscious steps to rein in the always-on culture will get better results from their best employees.