When it comes to work, technology has helped free employees from the confines of the office. In creating the potential for flexible working, it has provided tangible financial benefits for business – in some cases, flexible working has been shown to make us more productive – and helped workers feel respected and trusted.
Yet there is a darker side to this technological revolution. It’s that feeling that we’re constantly working, and are never allowed to switch off. The problem is so serious that at the end of 2016, France passed a law giving its workforce the legal right to ‘disconnect’ from work and have social lives.
That might sound like a fairly drastic measure. But a recent study by Birkbeck, University of London shows that the UK is struggling to tackle its “always on” problem, with more than half the 370 employees who took part in the study saying they had no idea about their company’s policy on work/life balance.
Birkbeck’s Dr Almuth McDowall, co-author of the research argues that it shows that organisations are unprepared for how digital progress is changing the world of work. “The qualitative data highlighted the effects on individuals who feel under great pressure not to ‘switch-off’, leading to intense pressure, poor performance and worry about what the immediate future holds,” she said of the study.
In many office jobs, portable devices such as laptops, tablets and phones, along with an expectation to keep on top of email even outside work hours, has already changed the relationship between home life and work life. And now the rise in informal workplace messaging apps such as Slack is adding to the already-perceived need to be “always on”.
Technology removes humanity’s mental and physical need to stop and reset, argues Professor Adam Alter from New York University. Alter calls these moments “stopping cues”. Put simply, these cues are the subconscious limits we place on all our activities: e.g. we finish eating because we’re full; we stop reading because we’re tired.
According to Alter, technology has removed these cues from our lives. The result is that the point at which we stop work and start doing something else has been removed – and so all these activities are blended into one large pot.
Whether we’ve realised it or not, all of this can result in a change in behaviour explains Dr Christine Grant, an occupational psychologist and member of the Psychology, Behaviour and Achievement Research Group at Coventry University. “I’ve come across things like masking behaviour,” she explains. “This is where you’re trying your best not to look at stuff around work but find yourself in the toilet or somewhere else hidden at a party after saying to yourself, ‘I’ll just pop to the loo I need to check an email.’”
These behaviours take their toll – and can start to encroach on our essential enjoyment of activities outside of work. “It can really affect your mood,” says Grant. “You check your email then lo and behold you were having a good time but there’s an email from someone giving you some news you’re not particularly pleased with. That then affects your social relationships e.g. you go back to the group, you’re not very happy and you’re back switched on with work.”
“You’re exhausted but you keep pushing yourself to keep going because you think you have to, or you expect it of yourself”
All of this then feeds into a phenomenon known as ‘cognitive load’ which Grant describes as: “You’re exhausted but you keep pushing yourself to keep going because you think you have to, or there are expectations that you might carry on into the evening, or maybe you just expect it of yourself.”
Not only can this damage your mental health, but it can also cause physical harm, explains Alter.
“Checking your phone right before bed—or really any time during the ninety minutes before bed—exposes your retina to bluish-white light that simulates daylight,” he says. “Our bodies interpret this light as daylight, so you’re effectively inducing jetlag by telling your body that it’s daytime when in fact you’re winding down for bed.”
With the UK seemingly struggling to find a way of coping with this problem, academics and some companies are considering solutions. Volkswagen and Daimler have both offered up their own attempts at solving this problem: Volkswagen shuts down its email servers outside of work hours for some employees, so workers can’t check their emails; Daimler has an initiative it calls “Mail on Holiday” where incoming emails autodelete if they recipient is away on leave.
Toast PR is a small Manchester-based PR company that is looking to change the attitude of our “always on” culture. Rather than using technology to do this it has a ‘right to disconnect’ policy that applies to all its employees. While there will always be emergencies, the company’s view is that all its employees should have a choice whether to answer emails when they are outside of work.
“Create your own boundaries, and be aware of when you’re crossing them and when you’re working for too long.”
Ultimately, argues Grant, the responsibility rests with both managers and employees. Now that technology has enabled working from home, communication is now more important than ever. “I think the old appraisal system simply isn’t enough in this environment. You have to be having those regular check ins.” she explains.
Dr Gail Kinman, a Professor of Occupational Health Psychology at the University of Bedfordshire, agrees. There is no one size fits all approach to technology, Kinman says. “People need some flexibility - we have found that ‘making’ people switch off at 5pm may be effective for some workers, but very frustrating for others who expect more personal control over when and where they do their work.”
What about us as individuals? “Create your own boundaries,” says Grant. “Being aware of when you’re crossing them and when you’re working for too long. You need to give yourself permission to walk away from something. It’s acknowledging that email is work.”