Mind & Body

Keeping Employees Available 24/7 Harms Collaboration and Mental Health

Smartphones and internet connectivity allow employees to be "always on" these days. But should you expect your team to be reachable 24 hours a day, seven days a week? Not if you want them to stay healthy and collaborate at their best, insists a fascinating pair of recent studies.

It's the Emails You Don't Send

The fact that it's stressful to get a panicked email from your supervisor at 11 p.m. will come as a shock to absolutely no one. But the first of these studies shows that you don't have to have a boss with boundary issues to be made anxious by an office with an always-on culture.

The research, led by Virginia Tech management professor William Becker, found that even just the expectation that employees be available 24/7 raises health-eroding stress levels for both workers and their families. That was true even if well-meaning bosses didn't even send late-night emails or otherwise abuse the privilege. Just the worry that they might was enough to produce negative effects.

A workplace's well-intentioned "flexible hours" policy, in other words, often just results in expectation and worry. And that can eat away at employee wellness. "The insidious impact of 'always on' organizational culture is often unaccounted for or disguised as a benefit — increased convenience, for example, or higher autonomy and control over work-life boundaries," Becker commented.

A Rested Brain Is a Creative Brain

The health effects make up a pretty strong bit of evidence against expecting your people to be available whenever and wherever. But even if you're the sort of hard-driving boss who is unconvinced by arguments about fluffy non-essentials like health and work-life balance, there is a solid business case for firm boundaries on when employees should be expected to stay connected.

Another new Harvard study, for instance, looked at the performance of three-person teams tasked with solving thorny complex problems. Some groups worked in isolation, some talked intermittently, and a final bunch constantly chatted thanks to always-on tech. You might think that more connection would mean better collaboration, but that's not what the research team found.

The groups that interacted often but still guarded some alone time for solitary reflection actually came up with the best and most innovative solutions. The researchers concluded that alternating periods of connection with periods of isolation was the most effective form of collaboration.

"As we replace those sorts of intermittent cycles with always-on technologies, we might be diminishing our capacity to solve problems well," Harvard's Ethan Bernstein warned.

How to Set Appropriate Boundaries

Taken together these two studies show that simply having the expectation that your team will always be reachable — even if you don't abuse the privilege — is bad both for employees' personal stress levels and their ability to collaborate together to produce their best work. People need some protected time away from work demands, and if you're the boss, it's your job to give it to them.

How do you do that? It just takes a few simple steps. Actively communicate your expectations for when and how your team should be reachable (so they don't assume the worst and stress all the time). If you have an idea in the middle of the weekend, write it up and use an email-scheduling tool so it lands in your employees' inboxes first thing Monday morning. Finally, set a good example yourself by, say, not instantly responding to a non-urgent 12 a.m. Slack question. A few changes can go a long way towards making sure you get the benefits of always-on technology without these research-verified pitfalls.

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For a little more help, check out "Work-Life Brilliance: Tools to Break Stress and Create the Life and Health You Crave" by executive coach Denise R. Green. The audiobook is free with a trial of Audible. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Jessica Stillman September 19, 2018

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