Only with the support of line managers will workers be able to manage digital distractions and balance their work and home lives, writes Anna Kotwinski

Let’s think back to a time when our working likes were very different to how they are today. We don’t have to rewind too far…

It’s 1999. When an employee leaves the office at the end of a busy day, shuts down their computer for the weekend, or smugly composes an out of office message before a holiday, they also leave work behind. And now? The majority of us are carrying our work around in our pockets – to the pub, to the family meal table, and often to the beach or ski slope.  

The smartphone has completely transformed the way we do business. It has provided incredible opportunities for flexible working, but that flexibility has come at a high cost. A culture has developed where employees increasingly feel the need to be available around the clock, where responsiveness is too often equated to commitment, and boundaries between professional and personal life are blurred like never before. Employees choosing to work long hours to get ahead is nothing new, but in a new digital age where individuals can be contactable and engage 24/7, arousal levels are continually peaked and the mind has no time for recovery. Dr Almuth McDowall, a psychologist at the University of London, has warned that these behaviours are not sustainable and that the effects on wellbeing and danger of burnout are the same whether the expectation to be available is explicit, implicit or self-imposed.  

Time and time again, people tell us about the trouble they have disconnecting from work; the impact this has on their personal relationships and families; how it increases stress; and suffering the compulsion to ‘just check’ their messages on holidays and weekends.   

And the evidence of this digital addiction isn’t just anecdotal. Research by the Chartered Management Institute in 2015 found that UK employees unwittingly cancelled out their entire annual leave by checking emails on smartphones outside of work hours, and that burnout and ill-health are the inevitable price. In a September 2016 study by Deloitte, one in three adults admitted that mobile phone usage causes arguments with their partner. And in February 2017, AXA PPP published the results of a study monitoring the stress levels of staff at the London offices of bank BNP Paribas, which found that half its employees suffered dangerously high levels of stress outside of the office, as they failed to balance their home and work lives.

As evidence around the negative effects of smartphones and other digital technologies continues to mount, organisations of all sizes cannot afford to ignore the inclusion of a digital management strategy within their wellbeing programmes and ensure that their staff take proper breaks from work. There is also the question of duty of care: if technology is given to employees to enable them to perform their role, or even as a perk, this facilitates and exacerbates a 24/7 working culture. How can employers provide support and guidance on managing technology usage to safeguard the wellbeing and work-life balance of their staff, so they can perform their best?  

Employers in some European countries have been quicker to respond to this modern problem than UK organisations. Volkswagen Germany decided in 2012 to turn off emails to work phones outside working hours, while in 2014, German car manufacturer Daimler introduced the auto-deletion of emails sent during an employee’s holiday. Meanwhile, just this year, France introduced a new ‘right to disconnect’ law, requiring companies with more than 50 workers to draw up a charter of good conduct, setting out the hours when staff should neither send nor answer emails.

It is a complex issue and attitudes to flexible working vary greatly. While some people prefer to have a clear separation between work and home, others like the fact that they can answer work emails while their kids are in bed. Arguably, legislation limiting access to emails and servers outside of work hours may disadvantage those who have a need or a preference to work non-traditional hours.  

This technology is so new that we are only now becoming aware of the impact it is having on business and employee wellbeing. There are few role models for healthy use of technology – especially at senior levels – and workers also need a better understanding of the effects of their behaviours on the wellbeing of others. If an employee sends out a work email on a Saturday evening, this has an (intended or unintended) impact on the recipient – especially if the sender is in a position of authority. Responsibility for this complicated issue needs to be taken at individual, line manager and organisational levels, because employees need guidance on how and when they should disconnect from work in an age when information overload and work-life balance is at crisis point.  

Anna Kotwinski is digital wellbeing director at Shine Offline, which helps organisations and employees understand the impact of technology on wellbeing, productivity and relationships