Most of us today feel too tethered to our smart-phones and computers. We feel obligated to constantly check e-mails, texts, Facebook and other networks, fretting about the remote possibility of a personal or professional emergency that occurred in the last 15 minutes that cannot be ignored.
Yet most people also seem to wish they could be less connected to their electronic gadgetry – in short, more “out of touch”. Deep down we know that life would proceed without catastrophe if we allowed an hour go by – even several days —without going online. Yet two factors prevent us from unplugging: constantly checking messages is now something like a tic – a habit that’s impossible to shake. In addition, many subscribe to the assumption that if everyone else is online 24 hours a day, then we need to be, too.
Dalton Conley, dean for the social services at New York University and author of “Elsewhere” writes that “Some industries are so highly volatile that people need to be connected all the time, but most of us over-exaggerate our own importance. Then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy — if we’re always available, then we’re expected to always be available.”
But, Conley also notes that businesses are increasingly acknowledging that employees really should be disconnected from time to time. And those benefits cut both ways: “giving workers time to chill helps ultimate long-term productivity.”
Yet the central question remains, can we unplug unilaterally (as individuals)? Or do we need to wait for some kind of collective shift to occur, one that recognizes the burnout that comes from endlessly being on call?
“It’s very hard to turn off by yourself,” said Leslie A. Perlow, a Harvard Business School professor and author of “Sleeping With Your Smartphone.” Perlow studies over 1,500 professionals, and discovered that only 2% shut off their devices while on vacation. But she also found that some simple organizational change could make a radical difference.
In one experiment with a small team at the Boston Consulting Group, each worker would have one night off per week, starting about 5 p.m.; from that point on, they would be unreachable via electronic device. The team also held discussions each week to assess how the process was going.
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Not everyone was eager to take part in the experiment. Despite the fact that employees got to choose their night off, many (at least initially) didn’t want to unplug. “Some said they didn’t know what they would do with a night off,” Perlow reported.
Yet they also implemented a “safety net,” meaning that the team member covering the “off” employee would take any e-mails and evaluate their urgency. If it was actually an emergency and no one else could manage it, the worker with the night off would be contacted.
Once all members were on board, the process functioned much better and had more positive results than anyone expected. Workers felt empowered, and reported heightened satisfaction with their work-life balance.
Other companies are looking into similar measures. In 2012, Volkswagen agreed that for a small group within its workforce, the employee e-mail server would be deactivated 30 minutes after they wrapped up their shifts, and wouldn’t be restored until 30 minutes prior to the start of the next day’s shift.
As Roger Cohen wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed, “Time to Tune Out,” “It’s a start in encouraging employees to switch off, curb the twitchy reflex to check e-mail every couple of minutes and take a look out at things — like family and the big wide world — without the distraction of a blinking red light.”
Many are crossing their fingers that this could be the beginning of a larger trend.
Tony Schwartz, an executive with the Energy Project (an organization that consults companies experiencing information overload), stated that “Every thoughtful and progressive organization realizes this is an issue we should deal with.” In the meantime, there are steps that all of us can take on our own:
- turn off electronic devices for 90 minutes at a time, particularly in the morning when people are generally the most productive.
- if you need to ensure that nothing urgent has come up, quickly scan over your inbox, but don’t get immersed in all the non-emergency email.
- send a message to notify others that you’re out of contact, but can be reached by phone if there’s an emergency.
- let key people in your professional life know that you’re unavailable between, say, 8 and 10 am on weekdays. That way their won’t expect a response.
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Stress in the workplace is a growing problem, and can lead to more serious issues like work-related anxiety and work-related depression. These conditions can impact a worker’s physical and emotional health, and also compromise the success of your career. If you are suffering from depression or other mental health issues, contact a Washington L&I lawyer for help with your case. We can assist you in collecting benefits for medical treatment, therapy, and lost time at work. Our employment attorneys and workers compensation attorneys also help countless employees with a Seattle Third Party Claim.
For more information on coping with stress in the workplace, read up on this topic on our blog.