In the Digital Age….. Should Employees Have a Right to Disconnect?
Patricia Thompson, Ph.D.
Senior Consultant Turknett Leadership group
Earlier this year, a “Right to Disconnect” bill was proposed in New York, modeled on a law in France. If passed, it will make it illegal for employers to expect employees to respond to emails or texts during non-work hours. Although it remains to be seen how this proposed law could be applied to individuals in a range of industries and jobs, it still raises some interesting questions for employers.
When it comes to work, electronic communication can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it provides greater flexibility with respect to when and where you do your work. Therefore, in theory, it should make it easier to balance your work and your life. Unfortunately, however, research shows that this form of communication also increases the expectations that leaders have with respect to staying in contact with their employees. Because employers know that it’s easier to take your work home with you, workers often end up with bigger workloads and more hours spent working per day.
As you might imagine, more work often equals more pressure. As an executive coach, I’ve heard many first-hand accounts from clients about the stress they experience as a result of trying to keep up with work-related emails while also striving to maintain appropriate work-life boundaries. This struggle often interferes with their home lives and can have a negative impact on their overall quality of life. Some have even expressed that their inability to completely disconnect from work can cause them to experience feelings of resentment towards jobs that they previously enjoyed.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that research has shown that a lack of autonomy is a big stressor for workers. Further, when the boundaries between work and home become blurred, it can also contribute to greater work-family conflict. When workers are more stressed and less “mentally present” while at home, the whole family can suffer.
Finally, being available around the clock can interfere with one’s ability to recover from the stress of specific work-projects. In essence, if you don’t feel that you can fully disconnect from work, it makes it much harder to refresh and recover from job-related stress during your offhours. Even if no emails arrive, the possibility that they could arrive means that you may be staying in “work mode” more than is ideal.
How Can Employers Navigate the Issue?
There may be some employers who fear that changing expectations about after-work communication will decrease productivity. After all, in this culture, (despite evidence to the contrary) there are still many people who consider workaholism to be a badge of honor. As such, many people have the belief that more work is better.
To the contrary, however, I would argue that smarter work is better work. After all, when you’re well-rested and happy with your job, you typically perform better across time than when you’re stressed out and burnt out. You’re more creative, more productive, and more engaged.
With that in mind, leaders should ensure that they are placing adequate value on their workers’ ability to be able to recharge during non-work hours. This means having realistic expectations about how available people should be and communicating support for disconnecting in the evenings. While legislating these sorts of interactions may not be logistically practical for all jobs, employers would be well advised to encourage their workers to really think about whether any given email really needs to be sent out right then when working after hours. Sometimes the answer might be “yes,” but most of the time, it’s probably “no.”
Further, leaders need to be mindful of the ways that they may be unintentionally sending mixed messages by sending emails at all hours of the night and weekends. Admittedly, I’ve seen many leaders who get caught up on emails during these times because they simply don’t have time to do so during their busy work days. Still, if you’re a boss who isn’t practicing what you preach in this regard, a simple fix that I’ve seen work for various clients is to save your emails to draft and send them in the morning, so as not to create confusion for your employees.
Alternatively, you can explain to workers that your email behaviors enable you to keep up with your workload, but that you don’t expect them to respond to emails sent during off-hours. Instead, you can let them know that if a matter is urgent, you’ll call them. (This will also likely cause you to reflect about how urgent the matter actually is, given that people are often quick to fire off an email, but will think twice about actually disturbing someone’s evening with an in person discussion).
By being intentional about how and when you communicate digitally, you can allow those around you strike a healthy balance between their personal and professional lives. And, that’s better for everyone.
Dr. Patricia Thompson is a Corporate Psychologist and Management Consultant who is passionate about helping her clients to achieve better outcomes by cultivating talent and making smart hiring decisions. Read More…