Traci Fiatte likes checking her emails on Sunday evening. It helps her feel ready for the week ahead.
But about five years ago, Fiatte, the group president at staffing firm Randstad US, realised that her own workaholic tendencies sometimes had a chilling effect on employees.
They were afraid that a promotion came with no personal life
“What I saw in exit interviews was that people were not wanting to get promoted because they were afraid that a promotion came with no personal life,” says Fiatte. “It was an eye opener. They were doing it because I was doing it.”
Like Fiatte, more of us are working around the clock and checking in on the office when we’re supposed to be enjoying downtime. More than half of the people surveyed in 2013 by the American Psychological Association reported checking their work messages at least once a day during weekends, vacations and when they are out sick.
But, that’s not such a bad thing for everyone, says David Ballard, assistant executive director for organisational excellence at the American Psychological Association. Many workers in the APA survey reported being happy about the ability to blend their work and personal lives. About 71% surveyed said they had control over their hours and 56% said technology makes it easier to get their work done.
“The positive aspect was a surprise,” says Ballard. “People related that it enhanced their productivity, increased flexibility and made it easier for them to get work done.”
The fastest way for me to go insane would be to try to work regular hours
Chris Hale, who started trade financing firm Kountable in 2014, doesn’t mind checking in on work while on holiday because it allows him to keep running his business while spending time with family and friends. Last summer, while on a live-aboard-boat with his family, he had an emergency call with an investor. With no quiet place to talk, he climbed into the dinghy.
“I think the fastest way for me to go insane would be to try to work ‘regular hours,’ Hale wrote in an email.
Being available at all hours makes some people feel crucial to the organisation, says executive coach Craig Dowden, who runs his own business in Toronto. If that sounds like you, you might get a little thrill when you see an email from the boss late at night.
“That flashing light on the phone says ‘I’m important’ and speaks to my ego,” says Dowden.
As well, many younger workers value immediacy, preferring to respond to messages as soon as they get them, explains Fiatte. After all, she points out, they’ve grown up accustomed to being able to instantly look up the answer to any question they might have on their smartphones.
One difference between being burdened and being fine with the always-on culture could be ownership. When Tom Cridland started his eponymous fashion brand in London two and half years ago, he felt like he could never switch off. “It meant caring hugely about every email that comes in, be it late on a Saturday night or early on a Monday morning,” wrote Cridland in an email.
It was only when his girlfriend joined the firm as his business partner did he feel like he could better balance his work and personal life. “Despite the fact that being entrepreneurs means we’re always connected to the office … the pros outweigh the cons hugely,” Cridland says.
Squeezed at both ends
But for others, being on-call all the time is what we think our bosses expect.
“Organisations can directly or indirectly reinforce the message to always be connected,” says Dowden. Technology means we can work anywhere and at all times, which creates ambiguity about what constitutes a typical work day.
45% of employees felt like they had to respond to email after hours
Think of the boss who sends emails during off-hours, never specifying when she needs a response. In such unclear situations we’re more likely to mimic the behaviour of higher-ups and successful colleagues. Add to that, pressure from above, heighted attention on corporate bottom lines, the nature of working across time zones and a new generation of workers happier to blur the lines between work and personal time, the expectation of being on call all the time is only growing.
In 2014, 42% of employees surveyed by staffing firm Randstad said that they felt like they had to check in on work while on holiday. And 45% of employees felt like they had to respond to email after hours, while 47% felt guilty about not working while sick. In 2015, Randstad’s survey revealed that one-third of workers had to cancel holiday plans because of work.
When you don’t have a choice but to be always on-call, it’s a different story. Tim Vahle-Hinz at Humboldt University in Berlin studied the impact of being on-call with water-company workers in Germany, who had to be available in case of emergencies. He and his team found that when the workers were on call, they had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol and reported being less rested.
But, in fact, answering email and being available at all hours might not be as necessary as we think. Once she realised that her off-hours emails gave employees the impression that they had to immediately respond, Fiatte and her management team made an effort to be more explicit with employees about what’s urgent and not. Fiatte still works on Sunday nights, but sends out emails on Monday morning. When an off-hours situation is truly urgent, she will make a phone call.
And, Fiatte now openly encourages employees to shut down when they’re on vacation. “We’re not dealing with Israeli peace efforts,” she says. “We’re a staffing company — go on vacation.”
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