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The Toxicity of Always Online Work Culture

Article by Behavioural Sassonomics




It is a reality of many of our careers that we are (almost?) always online. But what is the impact of the blurring of work and home life boundaries? The results, based on recently published research, are in… and they’re not good.


Smart phones, laptops, and connectivity. We are now enabled to work anywhere, anytime. It’s allowing for many of us to stay employed, and safe at home, during COVID-19. But the truth is that we now have a real blending of work and home life, and these boundaries are even further dissolved during the pandemic era.


What is the cost of the demands from these information communication technologies? (That’s the fancy word for it… or, ICT).


A new study, published in May this year, by YoungAh Park, Yihao Liu, and Lucille Headrick, looked at the impact of after-work connectivity – i.e., being accessible and contacted after work through mobile devices.


The researchers studied 546 elementary school teachers over the course of 5 weeks to see how the broken boundary between work and home life impacted them.


You won’t be surprised at all to hear that they found this intrusion was a significant source of strain. Being connected and contacted after work lead to negative affect (i.e., bad mood, negative emotions), insomnia, and negative rumination (ex. sensation of hopelessness).

But that’s not all…


We know that many people need that space between work and home for a variety of reasons – recovery, rest and memory consolidation, and also just simply the time to focus in on the tasks at hand at home or at work respectively. But how realistic is it to manage these boundaries and avoid these negative consequences of digital intrusion?


They found that teacher’s who employed boundary-enhancing tactics like turning their email notifications off faced lower after-hour demands. So having some self-structure had an impact.


But more importantly, the ability of the teacher to employ boundary-enhancing tactics was significantly impacted by ‘border keepers’.


The study found that ‘border keepers’ have an impact on the worker’s ability to maintain their work-life border and avoid these negative impacts. In the case of the elementary teachers in the study, the school principals' work–family support was related to teachers' lower weekly demands of being online.


What does this mean? Leaders set the pace for boundaries between work and home life.

Additionally, they found that the students' parents had demands on the after-hours connectivity of teachers, which could also eat into the teacher’s ability to create a healthy boundary.

Always On is Bad For Your Health


Scholars have found a link between the always on work culture and stress-related health problems. In particular, employees lacking awareness that they are experiencing this physiological and psychological stress don’t realize it can lead to lasting health issues, particular from the multi-tasking that comes from blurring work and home tasks at once. It can also lower productivity, with lower working memory and IQ. Indeed, according to the BBC, Dr Alasdair Emslie, president of the Society of Occupational Medicine, agrees, saying:


"Every year about 400,000 people in the UK report work-related stress at a level they believe is making them ill.”


We have enough issues when it comes to our own will-power and the internet without the pressure to forego our boundaries from our bosses.


Disconnecting from our email or social media can create feelings of anxiety. Feelings of nervousness to disconnect can come from a subsequent inability to monitor a ‘future threat’ – like a crisis at work, a political disaster on the news, or a social conflict on social media – in an era of anxiety. It is often difficult to disconnect because work rewards those who are always connected, and thus penalizes those who are not. Especially with all the cues around us, even in our homes, going digital (like the Internet of Things, wifi-connected fridges, and digital assistants). And in COVID-19, we might really not have a choice but to be online.


What to do?

  • Have a reason to disconnect – one that matters to you. Maybe it’s going to do some exercise offline, or reading a book with your kids. Otherwise, you’ll keep scrolling through your work emails.

  • Discuss expectations with your ‘border keepers’. This is a two-way street. What boundaries do they need respected and which do you need respected? You’d be surprised how communication upfront here can actually help your communication online during after-work hours. This might be hard to do with someone who you feel has power over you like a client or a boss, but they are people too, and have boundaries as well. Show some leadership and proactivity by starting that conversation.

  • Question the urgency. Just because someone emails you after work doesn’t mean you are obligated to write them back right away – particularly if you have to get dinner on the table for your family. Pause and think about how urgent the email or text actually is.

  • Question the moral implications. Sometimes holding up our boundaries in the face of requests makes us feel like we’re a bad person for not jumping up and helping. Know that sometimes these requests that come through are not always done thoughtfully (i.e. they didn’t fully think through how their request would impact your time or feelings). Question yourself – are you really obligated to address this urgently? Does taking your time to thoughtfully reply actually make you a bad person?

  • Stick to the plan. Do you log off promptly at 6pm every night? Try not to make exceptions – because it might set a precedent. Give an inch, they take a mile. That’s not what you want.

  • Try to find what works for you. Maybe you aren’t sleeping well because you have too much screen time before bed dealing with emails. Can you wake up 15 minutes earlier to deal with them in the morning instead? Spend a few days each on a couple of different tactics and try figuring out your own unique recipe.

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