Technology has been eroding the boundaries between work and home for years, but the pandemic has accelerated the process. After coronavirus sent us there, the home has become a place of impossible demands. Our need for time with family and relaxation competes with the demands of childcare and work emails, all in the same physical space. The stress is very real, and it puts teams at risk for burnout and decreased productivity.
Now, a new study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign encourages stakeholders to deliberately encourage clear work-life boundaries. If employees have a sense of control over intrusions into non-work life, they are better able to manage stress. And that pays off in productivity when they reengage with work.
The belief that being able to work anywhere makes us more productive is an illusion. It’s an easy mistake to make. But the alerts that ping and buzz on our smartphones actually increase our stress. In fact, the research team behind this paper, which studies occupational stress and employee well-being, points out that the alerts create “spikes of stress.” That adds up to negative moods, rumination about work, and poor sleep. When people work in an always-on culture, they begin to dread it.
Work stress is worse if we work anytime.
If we are never all the way off, we may never be all the way on. The loss in work productivity associated with chronic stress has been well studied. But the body of research has also been growing on the specific issue of off-hours work demands. According to study co-author Yihao Li, a professor of labor and employment relations, this is becoming an increasingly important issue for workers.
We all know how easily we can get drawn into answering that one email from our boss or addressing that issue for our coworker quickly. It may only take a few minutes, or it may pull us down a rabbit hole of complexity, but each interruption impacts our ability to recharge. That’s just the way our brains work.
And the issue is compounded exponentially for parents, who put their children’s bedtime routine on hold to deal with work demands. To the child, who is not holding their parent’s work email, it’s a random negative event. Kids become more anxious and demanding because they don’t know when they can count on time with their parents. Household stress skyrockets.
The convenience of our devices comes at the price of our mental health unless we have control over the boundaries between work and non-work life.
According to study co-author YoungAh Park, professor of labor and employment relations, “Most people simply can’t work without a smartphone, tablet or laptop computer. These technologies are so ubiquitous and convenient that it can lead some people to think that employees have to be always on or always available. Clearly, this kind of after-hours intrusion into the home or personal life domain is unhealthy, and our research shows that an always-on mentality has a big downside in the form of increased job stress,” she said in a press release.
Boundaries with our tech reduce stress.
To study the impact of work intrusions into non-work life, the study authors surveyed over 500 full-time public school teachers in grade K-6 for five weeks. “We asked about their weekly work intrusion involving technology, specifically their after-hours work – whether they were expected to respond to work-related messages and emails immediately, and whether they were contacted about work-related issues after hours,” said Park.
Why study teachers? “We found that after-hours work intrusion via technology can be really stressful for them,” said Park. "So although this finding is particular to teachers, a class of employees who we tend to assume have clear work-life boundaries, it’s now an issue for everyone who is electronically tethered to their work after regular hours.”
If the teachers used tech boundaries such as silencing alerts from work emails, they perceived less work intrusion. But when they did not use boundaries, they developed negative rumination about their work.
But it was the impact of the “border keepers” that the study authors found made the biggest difference in whether teachers felt they had control over their boundaries. If principals, who function as supervisors, sent a message of support for work-life balance, the teachers felt empowered to set boundaries. On the flip side, parents (a good proxy for clientele) who demanded immediate availability from teachers were also a big driver of stress.
If supervisors communicate clear support for work-life balance, employees feel a greater sense of control. When supervisors send mixed messages, paying lip service to work-life boundaries and then sending urgent emails at 930 pm, employees know that they do not have that control. But if employees do have “supportive leaders who model behaviors for work-life balance and work effectively with employees to creatively solve work-life conflicts, that translates into less stress for teachers through boundary control,” said Park.
So the next time you want to send that email right now, schedule it to send in the morning. Or tell your coworker that you don’t expect a response right away, because you were just writing it while it was top of mind. Messages of respect for each other’s time go a long way toward reinforcing a healthy work culture. And that translates into a more productive team.
This post was previously published on Forbes.com